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Germany

Merkel's approval rate slips, as public mood hardens in election season

The polls that really matter are just over a month away, including in two of Germany's larger and wealthier states. Yet Chancellor Angela Merkel's approval ratings keep sliding, into "eurozone crisis" territory of old.

Deutschland Wahlkampf Europawahl CDU Plakat mit Angela Merkel

'Successful together in Europe,' the campaign poster reads; don't expect too many placards carrying Merkel's 'we can do this' migration motto

For what seemed like years, the monthly "Deutschlandtrend" ("Germany-trend") polls commissioned by public broadcaster ARD served as a regular reminder that Chancellor Angela Merkel's approval ratings smashed those of all domestic political rivals and allies - or perhaps all bar the man or woman of a given moment. Generally, the question was simply whether her outright lead had grown or shrunk. Those days seem an increasingly distant political memory.

A month before state elections in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, Angela Merkel's slipped to a most distant third in the personal approval ratings. Asked if they were "satisfied with the work of" various leading German politicians, only 46 percent of respondents answered "yes" in Merkel's case - a slump of 12 percent on the previous month's figures. Not since 2011, during the height of the so-called "eurozone debt crisis," had Merkel scored worse.

Merkel's Christian Democrat Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, also on the slide, scored 64 percent, while Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier led at 70 percent.

You don't have to look far for the fears and concerns driving this sudden downturn in opinion, as shown by the 81 percent of participants who believed that the government in Berlin does not "have the refugee situation under control."

Meanwhile, "Karnival" revelers marked "Weiberfastnacht" - a

gender-reversing celebration of women's emancipation

to kick off the main Carnival week, focused around the site of the New Year's attacks in central Cologne.

The polls pointed to an ever-hardening collective German heart on the issue of who deserves asylum or shelter.

For instance, the

so-called "Asylum Package II" laws

- the subject of some criticism among politicians - seemed to be one government initiative drawing support. Almost four-fifths of those polled thought it was right for Germany to seek to classify Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as "safe countries of origin" - meaning only asylum-seekers who can demonstrate personal persecution or direct dangers have realistic chances of being granted asylum in Germany. Similarly, voters seemed to be raising the bar on the question of what kinds of hardship might warrant asylum:

So, what about the government's work more generally - might that provide a kernel of encouragement for the suddenly-embattled chancellor? After all, the economy's still growing, tax revenues have bulged, the famed "black zero" (symbolizing no new debt) on the German budget sheet stood (ahead of plan) in 2015.

For Merkel and her Christian Democrats, these polling figures are a major threat for the immediate and mid-term future. Twelve months ago, CDU strategists might seriously have hoped to deal their coalition allies and domestic rivals, the SPD, two crucial blows in the populous, wealthy western states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. In the 2011 votes, the CDU was the largest single player in both states, but the Social Democrats and Greens combined to form majority coalitions and leave the conservatives in the cold. Now, the chances of wrenching back control of these left-leaning regional parliaments seems slim, to say the least.

More importantly from an international perspective, however, March 13's three state elections are some of the most significant between now and Germany's 2017 general elections, likely to take place in or around September of 2017. As every month, voters were asked what they would do if the national vote were in fact taking place on Sunday.

It doesn't take a mathematician to spot the winner, or the loser, in the monthly swing in these figures. The AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) score of 12 percent would make it the third largest faction in the Bundestag. What's more six parties were in the running to clear the parliamentary hurdle of 5 percent of the popular vote, winning a set of MPs in reward.

Such a numerical landscape could prove rather complex if it came to pass next year. Any CDU/CSU hopes of ditching the Social Democrats and seeking a more right-of-center ally would seem out of the question - working on the seemingly safe assumption that Merkel and AfD leader Frauke Petry wouldn't forge a surprise coalition. Somewhat ironically, in fact, the current voter dissatisfaction with the "Grand Coalition's" policies is threatening to deliver a parliament so fragmented, that a renewal of the "GroKo" - as it's sometimes contemptuously called for short - might end up as the only practical option. This potential outcome surely wouldn't jive with the political wishes of the typical AfD supporter, though it might suit the party's longer-term political strategy rather neatly.

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