Truck attack shows Merkel’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

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 desta­bi­lize the one main­stream leader in Europe who has looked in­vul­ner­a­ble. “The attack will re-ig­nite crit­i­cism of An­gela Merkel, her lib­eral refugee pol­icy and com­mit­ment to open bor­ders, demon­strat­ing how vul­ner­a­ble she is head­ing into next year’s elec­tion,’ said Mu­jtaba Rah­man of Eura­sia Group.

In her first com­ments since the attack, Merkel, 62, urged Ger­mans not to suc­cumb to fear and said the coun­try would find the strength to con­tinue to live “free, to­gether and open”. But she also hinted at the trou­ble­some im­pli­ca­tions of the in­ci­dent for her and oth­ers who have opened their arms to refugees flee­ing war and per­se­cu­tion in the Mid­dle East. “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 in Ger­many,” she said.

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. “The en­vi­ron­ment in which such acts can spread was care­lessly and sys­tem­at­i­cally im­ported over the past one-and-a-half years,” said AfD leader Frauke Petry. “It was not an iso­lated in­ci­dent and it won’t be the last.”

For­eign crit­ics also took their digs, with Nigel Farage, a driv­ing force be­hind the Brexit vote in June which forced out Cameron, tweet­ing: “Ter­ri­ble news from Ber­lin but no sur­prise. Events like th­ese will be the Merkel legacy.” A poll re­leased yes­ter­day morn­ing and con­ducted be­fore the attack showed sup­port for Merkel’s con­ser­va­tive bloc - her Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU) and its Bavar­ian al­lies - at 36 per­cent, 14 points ahead of the next strong­est party, the So­cial Democrats (SPD), and 25 points ahead of the AfD.

The sur­vey for Stern mag­a­zine also showed that 50 per­cent of Ger­mans would back Merkel in a hy­po­thet­i­cal vote for chan­cel­lor, com­pared to just 14 per­cent for SPD leader Sig­mar Gabriel. De­spite that healthy mar­gin, Merkel her­self has said next year’s elec­tion will be “tough like no other”. Her ad­vis­ers have also cau­tioned against view­ing her re­elec­tion as a done deal, point­ing to the threat of at­tacks, a re­newed in­flux of refugees and the risk that Rus­sia could try to desta­bi­lize Merkel with fake news and cy­ber leaks as it ap­pears to have done in the run-up to the re­cent US elec­tion. “Noth­ing is cer­tain,” one top aide told Reuters last month. “There is a lot of time un­til the elec­tion and a lot can hap­pen be­tween now and then.”

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. — Reuters

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