Merkel worried as regional campaigns enter home straight
On Thursday morning, Julia Klöckner gathered up all her frustration and fear and expressed it in one now notorious tweet. "Whoever votes for the AfD in protest will end up strengthening the left camp," wrote the struggling candidate for Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Klöckner was the longtime favorite in a state where, just days before Sunday's election, she has been overtaken in at least one poll by her Social Democratic (SPD) counterpart Malu Dreyer.
The tweet was a naked plea to her core center-right voters: Even if you're disgruntled with Merkel's refugee policy, voting for the increasingly far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) will only open the door for the center-left. After all, as she pointed out in a subsequent tweet, no one will form a coalition with the AfD.
Despite some predictable online mockery - "Whoever eats meat in protest will end up strengthening vegetarians," one satirical TV show chuckled - it's hard to argue with Klöckner's tactical logic. The rise of the AfD in all three German states voting this Sunday - Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt - is almost certainly likely to cost the CDU more than any other mainstream party.
AfD on the rise - but also the southern Greens
Most polls have the AfD hovering at around 10 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, comfortably putting them on course to be represented in state parliaments there, while in Saxony-Anhalt the anti-immigration party is up as high as 18 or 19 percent - a fairly astonishing rise given that the party didn't even exist in 2013.
But even Klöckner's fall in the Rhineland or an unprecedented gain for the hard right in Saxony-Anhalt wouldn't necessarily be the biggest disaster for Merkel. As inauspicious signals go, few could be worse than losing to the Green party in the prosperous southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, where a poll by state broadcaster ZDF put the environmentalists at 32 percent - three points above the CDU. That would represent a 10-point swing against Merkel's party, which won the state comfortably in 2011, only to lose the state premiership because its chosen coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), tanked.
The triumphant beneficiary of that defeat was Winfried Kretschmann, the Green party's first ever state premier, who looks likely to consolidate his position on Sunday. His successful strategy in the state has been to present the most conservative possible version of his party to the electorate.
Only one issue
That much was clear in Thursday's final TV debate on regional broadcaster SWR, which was notable not least because the environment - including Germany's much-discussed transition to renewable energy - was never once on the agenda of either Kretschmann or his CDU rival Guido Wolf. As in the rest of Germany, only one issue is currently motivating the people of Baden-Württemberg: what to do about the refugees.
It was Kretschmann, of all people, who had the kindest words for Merkel. He praised her as an "experienced crisis manager," while her party colleague Wolf was keen to emphasize the chancellor's more measured statements on immigration, according to which refugees had "a claim to security and a safe haven, but not a claim to a particular country."
While much of the six-man debate involved railing against the AfD's candidate Jörg Meuthen, who railed back in no uncertain terms, the irony is that regional governments actually have very little influence on Germany's immigration policy. The bread and butter of regional government - police reform, education, and street-cleaning - was relegated to the final third of the fractious debate. For instance, one issue which was decisive in the downfall of the CDU five years ago was the renovation of the main railway station in Stuttgart - this costly and unpopular work is still incomplete and is likely to become even more expensive, but has been virtually irrelevant in this election campaign.
Uncertainty in Saxony-Anhalt
But it's in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt that the AfD has managed to cause the most uncertainty. Its rise from a standing start to nearly 20 percent in the polls means that it is far from clear who will govern the state - if the polls can be believed, the "grand coalition" currently in charge, including the CDU and the SPD, is struggling to find a majority this time around.
For CDU state premier Reiner Haseloff, who has been in office for 10 years, the decisive factor could be the smaller parties - in this case the Greens and the FDP, both hovering right on the all-important five-percent hurdle in the current polls. Should they clear that, both could become potential partners in a three-way coalition with the CDU and the SPD. And even if they don't, the leftover seats (so-called overhang mandates) could be seized by the SPD and push his grand coalition over the 50-percent mark after all. Meanwhile, the socialist Left party, which is still polling as the state's second-biggest political force, and the AfD would be left as a formidable opposition - as it could well become at the national level.