Berlin truck terror attack puts pressure on Merkel’s re-election hopes

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a news conference in Berlin, Germany, December 20, 2016, one day after a truck ploughed into a crowded Christmas market in the German capital.
Hannibal Hanschke | Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a news conference in Berlin, Germany, December 20, 2016, one day after a truck ploughed into a crowded Christmas market in the German capital.

Reactions to the violent Monday evening attack on a Berlin Christmas market that left 12 dead and 48 injured will be closely watched for their potential to affect next year's crucial elections in Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the current favorite as she prepares to run for a fourth term in next year's elections yet faces mounting opposition from anti-immigration populist political groups and parties, such as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Pegida.

Success in local elections this year indicate AfD is in a position to feasibly pick up sufficient votes to secure seats in Germany's national parliament in the elections – a first for a far-Right party since the Second World War.

Although her popularity has since recovered some ground, Merkel saw it dive on the back of her decision in 2015 to open the country's borders to around a million refugees from conflict-strewn zones of the Middle East.

A spate of provocations linked to refugees, including multiple sexual assaults in Cologne last New Year's Eve, a suicide bomber at a beer festival and an ax-wielding attacker on a commuter train, further hardened the mood against Merkel's liberal stance.

Acknowledging the strength of public sentiment as she addressed the nation on Tuesday morning following the Christmas market attack, Merkel conceded that the violent act had to be assumed to be terrorism.

"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," she further admitted.

Reacting to Monday's attacks, Marcus Pretzell, an AfD politician asked on Twitter, "When will the German rule of law strike back? When will this cursed hypocrisy end? These are Merkel's dead!"

'Suspected terrorist attack'

Although the identity and nationality of the driver of the truck which ploughed through the Christmas market have not yet been publicly confirmed, local police did concede on Tuesday morning that they were likely dealing with an act of terrorism.

"Our investigators assume that the truck was deliberately steered into the crowd at the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz," Berlin police said on Twitter.

"All police measures related to the suspected terrorist attack at Breitscheidplatz are progressing at full steam and with the necessary diligence," they continued.

Unconfirmed German media reports have been speculating that the truck's driver was of Pakistani origin and had entered the country as a refugee in February.

Merkel's revised thinking on her open-door refugee stance was confirmed by her September admission that she regretted the policy and her recent vow it would not be repeated given it was clearly against the wishes of the German people. The Chancellor has also recently toughened her position on the deportation of refugees who fail to qualify for asylum and has supported those calling for a ban on full-face veils where legally possible.

Speaking on CNBC's Squawk Box on Tuesday, Otso Iho, senior analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, said that the security issues that Germany is facing are indeed a "huge problem" for Merkel.

"The attacks that we have seen over the summer…that have been claimed by the Islamic State, are something that will likely impact her negatively, particularly as there are a lot of different individuals and groups tying Germany's terrorism threats to the migration crisis in Europe," he ventured.

Via emailed comments to CNBC, Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform said that it was still too early to tell how much this will impact Merkel's electoral chances.

"There are still months to go before the elections, and she has plenty of time to show that the government is on top of the terrorist threat," Bond explained.

"But if there are more attacks, especially if they involve asylum seekers, then that is likely to increase the vote for the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany," he added.

Advance warning?

The extent to which Monday night's event will impact Merkel will partly depend on the government's and authorities' reaction but also as further details emerge. If it becomes suspected that the government had pre-warning of an attack, the fall-out could be significantly worsened.

"According to sources of my colleagues @welt, authorities in Berlin in recent days had info about possible attack against Christmas market," tweeted Clemens Wergin, the Washington Bureau Chief of German national daily, Die Welt.

This alongside the U.S. State Department's warning in late November about potential terrorism around year end in Europe.

"The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the heightened risk of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, particularly during the holiday season. U.S. citizens should exercise caution at holiday festivals, events, and outdoor markets," cautioned the press release.

The attacks came as part of a day of regional violence which also saw Russia's ambassador to Turkey gunned down and a shooting at a mosque in Zurich and at the end of a year peppered with cruel and deadly terrorist attacks.

Some say this context will simply add to fears that Europe has lost control of its migration policy and society, thereby galvanising further support for political groups seeking much more conservative means of addressing the situation. However, others believe the characterisation of these events as a common cross-border battle faced by many countries within Europe will strengthen the Chancellor's position as she continues to be regarded as a critical pillar of strength and continuity for Germany at a challenging time.

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