BERLIN (USA Today) The deadly truck rampage through a Christmas market crowd here marked a new setback for Chancellor Angela Merkel's hopes for political survival at a time when opposition is growing over her open-door policy for migrants.
"This was exactly the kind of terrible event that could seriously affect the German elections" next year, said Michael Wohlgemuth, director of the Berlin office of the political think tank Open Europe.[ad number=“1”]
"Many people will make a connection between Merkel's refugee policy and the threat of terrorism. But since all the parties in the federal parliament supported her policy, there would only be one party to profit from (the Dec. 19 attack): AfD. One could expect this party to do much better as a consequence."
AfD is the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, which has picked up support from Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union in recent regional parliamentary elections, in part because voters have been drawn to its anti-establishment and anti-immigration message.
For nearly two years, Merkel has faced sharp criticism over her decision to allow nearly 1 million asylum seekers to enter Germany from conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa. Often they arrive having undergone little in the way of security or background checks.
Germany has seen a few small-scale attacks linked to Islamic extremists and asylum seekers over this time, but nothing on a large scale.[ad number=“2”]
But a Pakistani national who applied for asylum in Germany has been detained in connection with Monday's truck assault that killed 12 people and injured 48. The suspect denies involvement, and police aren't certain they have the right man in custody. German authorities have called the incident a terrorist attack, which cannot help Merkel's fight for a fourth term —nine months from now.
"I know it would be especially hard for us all to bear if it were confirmed that the person who committed this act was someone who sought protection and asylum," Merkel said Tuesday.
Merkel's approval ratings stand at 57 percent, according to an Infratest dimap poll published a few weeks ago. While that is relatively high compared to her counterparts in other European countries, it represents a fall from the 75 percent approval she enjoyed just before Europe's migrant crisis erupted.
AfD is still far behind in national polls. An Infratest dimap survey published Friday tracked voting intentions ahead of 2017's election and found that AfD had just 13 percent support to 36 percent for Merkel's CDU. In addition, every political party in Germany has ruled out forming a coalition with AfD, meaning it has no path to power unless it wins an outright majority.[ad number=“3”]
Ronald Gläser, an AfD politician in Berlin, said now was not a time for "political statements" and that the party's members were focused on remembering the victims and thanking the firefighters and policemen who responded to the incident. "Later on we have to discuss the consequences," he said.
But Marcus Pretzell, a member of the European Parliament representing AfD in the European Union's headquarters in Brussels and Strasbourg, was less restrained. "When will the rule of law fight back," he wrote on Twitter not long after news of the assault broke. "When will this ... hypocrisy end? These are Merkel's dead!"
(Kim Hjelmgaard writes for USA Today)