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Opinion

Opinion: Referendum in difficult times

No one can really be surprised by the elections. DW's Marcel Fürstenau would have been surprised had the results been different.

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) suffered partial losses in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt.

Despite this, Angela Merkel will remain chancellor in far-away Berlin. She will also remain party leader.

For Julia Klöckner, often touted as a possible Merkel successor, the road to Berlin's top job will be a long one - perhaps too long. After her modest results, the top candidate from Rhineland-Palatinate will have to be patient, that is, should she even harbor such ambitions.

It would have been nothing short of miraculous if the CDU had managed to avoid such - partially dramatic - losses. The German people are far too disillusioned with the government's refugee policy for that. They blame both the chancellor as well as the SPD.

As a result, Merkel's junior coalition partner was the second-biggest loser in the regional elections.

Everything the ruling grand coalition in Berlin has done or neglected to do with regard to asylum can be felt with full force across all 16 federal states. But these state elections were the first opportunity voters had to express their opinion. It was a representative litmus test that brought the expected results.

Refugee crisis benefiting the AfD

The only party happy about this is the Alternative for Germany (AfD). If it weren't for the refugee crisis, the AfD likely wouldn't have crossed the 5-percent hurdle.

But now, it's gained representation in three more state parliaments with double-digit results. It's a triumph, but it has nothing to do with a credible program or capable politicians.

Just the opposite is the case: It isn't even a year ago that competing branches of the AfD were attacking each other in public. The more radical branch survived, and they were no longer content to simply be Euroskeptic. They sought and found close ties with the anti-Islam Pegida movement.

The success of the AfD was inevitable, and it's something that can be good for a democracy. It's now up to the other parties to take on board the messages sent by the electorate. This was the warning shot for a policy that has become increasingly contradictory and implausible.

Among Merkel's biggest critics from within her own party are Klöckner in Rhineland-Palatinate, and her male counterpart in Baden-Württemberg, Guido Wolf. And they've been served the bill for this policy in the elections, which functioned as more of a referendum. And it doesn't matter for what reason voters gave their support to another party, or chose not to vote at all.

Protest parties come and go

Anger and denial are not exactly nice motives for a political choice, but they are legitimate.

There have always been people who vote to send a warning or to protest. And usually, the parties that profit from these votes are to the right or extreme right of the spectrum.

None have so far managed to establish themselves in parliament. In the end, the substance of what such parties stand for is the decisive factor, and when it comes to the AfD, the substance is very thin indeed.

However, the CDU, the CSU, the SPD, the Left Party, the Greens and the FDP should not make the mistake of relying on the weakness of the upstarts. Now more than ever, they must focus on their strengths and be true to their convictions. For the state parliaments in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, this means forming effective coalitions as quickly as possible. The current situation is much too serious and complicated to get bogged down in partisan sensitivities.

And if those now forming a government want to be seen as credible - not just with regard to the refugee crisis - they should not shy away from offering proof of the vitality and flexibility of representative democracy.

Then we could all relax while looking ahead to the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the city-state of Berlin.

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