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Berlin truck attack shows Merkel’s vulnerability

  • Published at 10:43 pm December 21st, 2016
Berlin truck attack shows Merkel’s vulnerability
For months, Germany’s Angela Merkel has looked like the one safe bet in European politics. As Britain’s David Cameron, Italy’s Matteo Renzi and France’s Francois Hollande all succumbed to the scorn of angry voters, the German chancellor promised to fight for a fourth term and seemed destined to win it. That is still the base case scenario as Germany gears up for an election in the autumn of next year, one of several in Europe that could tilt the region’s political landscape. But the truck attack on a crowded Christmas market in the bustling heart of the former West Berlin on Monday night is a reminder that even Merkel, Europe’s longest-serving leader, is vulnerable to events on the ground as 2017 unfolds. Initial reports suggested the attack, which killed 12 people and injured 48, was carried out by a 23-year-old migrant from Pakistan who arrived in Germany one year ago, with the flood of refugees that Merkel welcomed with her optimistic mantra “we can do this”. Later, police said it was unclear whether the man they had arrested on Monday night was indeed the driver. What does seem clear however, is that any attack in Germany with a link, no matter how tenuous, to last year’s refugee influx will be laid at Merkel’s door by opponents keen to destabilise the one mainstream leader in Europe who has looked invulnerable.

Populists pounce

The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which was created three years ago in opposition to euro zone bailouts but has since morphed into an anti-immigration party, was quick to put the blame on Merkel and her policies. A poll released on Tuesday morning and conducted before the attack showed support for Merkel’s conservative bloc - her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian allies - at 36%, 14 points ahead of the next strongest party, the Social Democrats (SPD), and 25 points ahead of the AfD. Merkel has watched over the past half year as Cameron and Renzi staked their political futures on referendums that they lost. Hollande, deeply unpopular, announced this month he would not stand for a second term next year. In 2017, the Netherlands, France, Germany and probably Italy will hold elections.

CSU standoff

One of the biggest concerns in Merkel’s entourage has been the criticism of her refugee policies from the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), which has threatened to break with her CDU unless she accepts a ceiling on the number of migrants allowed into the country each year. Merkel has refused to budge on that demand but has tried to appease the CSU with a series of real and symbolic steps to clamp down on migration and ratchet up security. This month, she backed a ban on face-covering Muslim veils for women. With mainstream, centrist parties enjoying the support of roughly 75% of the electorate and Merkel’s CDU with a healthy lead over all challengers, it may take more disasters like the one on Monday evening at a Christmas market in Berlin to knock the German leader from her perch.
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