Germany's Anti-Immigrant Party Challenges Angela Merkel For Re-Election
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a critical test today in her political career. Merkel has been under increasing pressure over the European migrant crisis, and recent polls suggest Angela Merkel, who's been the German leader for more than a decade, could lose an election in her political home state. We go now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who is in the capital of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the vote's taking place.
Soraya, what is exactly happening with this election? What are the stakes here for Merkel?
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, it's more symbolic, in a way, than it is actually substantive because this state, even though it's one of the largest, actually has only 1.6 million people. And so, population-wise, it doesn't really contribute to the parliament and that sort of thing. But having said that, her electoral district is here.
And so, if Chancellor Merkel loses here, her party, which has ruled in a coalition government for the last decade here with the Social Democrats - if they lose today, then it's really a very significant slap to the face, if you will. And this is coming at a time when the chancellor is being asked to decide whether she will stand for another term.
MARTIN: What's the mood like where you are? What's voter turnout?
NELSON: Well, people are pretty quiet today. And the turnout has just been incredibly low early on. And that's probably in large part because of the weather because it's pouring rain at the moment. When I asked a resident where the vote was taking place, she asked me - what vote?
But at least 1 in 4 of those expected to turn out today are going to vote against Chancellor Merkel and even in her home district. And that's according to polls that have been done in the recent days. And what people are saying is that they're fed up with her and her refugee policy, which they think is going to harm states, especially like this one here.
MARTIN: How so? I mean, how has this migrant crisis become such a political issue?
NELSON: Well, it's interesting because, actually, only 4 percent of the people who live here are actually foreign-born. And even fewer of those are refugees. So there's not a whole lot of experience with refugees here.
Having said that, people here watch the TV. And they hear critics of her policies talk about how more than a million people coming here last year from various war-torn countries and also seeking economic help are going to, like, destroy the fabric of the society. And this is something that Alternative for Germany, which is the party that's coming up from behind and is expected to actually beat Merkel's party today, they're exploiting that fear in people who don't really have a whole lot of experience with integration.
MARTIN: Is that the biggest issue that Angela Merkel faces, the refugee crisis? Or are there other concerns voters have?
NELSON: Well, there are other concerns in this state, which is one of the prettiest. It's also one of the poorest, where people here are making less than the national average. Unemployment is higher than the national average, and a lot of the young people, especially, have left because there just aren't jobs and that sort of thing. So you have that going on, the feeling that that hasn't really changed in years or at least with their help - with the last state government.
And then on top of that, you have the concern here in this former East German state about the relationship with Russia. The feeling is that Chancellor Merkel is too harsh on a country that was once allied with this area. And there's also a fear. It's just fear of what, you know, Russia might do. So that's a part of her policy that's also not very popular here.
MARTIN: Soraya, you mentioned this party Alternative for Germany that's getting a lot of traction and proving to be a political threat to Angela Merkel. What more can you tell us about that party?
NELSON: Well, they were invented three years ago on an anti-euro currency platform. But they've since sort of switched to anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, sort of picked up on that fear factor that we talked about. And they already have seats in eight of the 16 state legislatures. So if they win today, that puts them over, you know, more than half basically. So the concern is what sort of impact they're going to have on federal policy, the election for which will be in 2017.
MARTIN: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, thanks so much.
NELSON: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.