About Those German Election Results...

Losses in three states are being portrayed as a disaster for Angela Merkel and her open-door refugee policy, but the votes present a more complicated picture.

Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the AfD, at a gathering of her party on Sunday (Michael Sohn / AP)

Many of the headlines about the three state elections in Germany over the weekend follow a similar theme:

Setback for Angela Merkel as Far Right Makes Gains in Germany

Angela Merkel’s CDU suffers German state election setbacks

German elections: setbacks for Merkel’s CDU as anti-refugee AfD makes big gains

Angela Merkel’s party suffers in German state votes as she faces most serious challenge to her power

And those stories attribute the performance of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to the chancellor’s open-door policy for refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, and indeed Merkel herself acknowledged a “difficult day” for the party. A closer reading of the results present a more complicated picture, however.

Merkel’s CDU governed one of the states, Saxony-Anhalt, up for play in the regional elections. The other two, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, were governed by a center-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. In other words, Merkel’s CDU was a challenger in those two states. It lost in both, though it was expected to win in  Baden-Württemberg, a former stronghold.

In both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU candidates were vocal opponents of Merkel’s position on Syrian refugees. Indeed, the victors in both these places, the ruling center-left coalition, strongly supported Merkel’s policy. In Baden-Württemberg, nearly 8 in 10 voters said they supported welcoming refugees, according to exit polls; in Rhineland-Palatinate, the exit polls showed, nearly a third said they switched their support from the CDU to the Greens because of their more posture toward refugees.

A more complicated picture emerges in Saxony-Anhalt, where Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a party that campaigned against the refugee policy and on slogans such as “Stop the asylum chaos,” captured 24 percent of the vote to enter the regional parliament as the second-largest party behind the ruling CDU. The CDU lost about 2.5 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, the Social Democrats lost about 11 percent, and Die Linke, the left party, lost about 7 percent of the vote.

The AfD also made significant gains in the other two states, winning about 15 percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg and 12.5 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate. Ominously, the performance of the AfD, which didn’t exist at the time of the last regional elections in 2011, is being described as “the strongest showing for a rightwing, populist party since the end of the second world war.”

Does this suggest that those headlines about growing opposition to the refugees is correct? Possibly—but possibly not. More than 1 million people entered Germany last year, the vast majority of them Syrian. The influx has shocked the German political system, raised tensions in some parts of the country, and prompted Merkel to negotiate an agreement with Turkey to slow the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe. Add to this mix a regional election.

Turnout in all three states was up by about 10 percent. Most of those new voters went to the AfD. But even in Saxony-Anhalt, where the AfD performed remarkably well, strong majorities among voters for the major parties—but not AfD supporters—backed Merkel’s policy, according to exit polls. Indeed, across all three states, a strong majority said they supported the refugee policy.

The results show a country that is increasingly polarized. The two centrist parties, the CDU and the SPD, lost voters; the AfD and the FDP, a party that supports free markets and whose leader has called for a more restrictive approach to the refugees, were the only two parties that gained in all three regions.

If these election results indicate anything it is that Germans are still trying to balance the need to help those fleeing civil war and unrest with their own insecurities in the face of the newcomers.

“A million immigrants later, Germans are shaken,” Bernd Ulrich wrote in Die Zeit, “but Germany’s civil society has shown its resilience.”

The German government’s own response to the election results has been unequivocal: A spokesman said there would be no change in policy toward the migrants.