What do the Hamburg riots mean for the German federal elections?

19.07.2017 – Leo Mausbach

The riots at the G20 summit in Hamburg have sparked an intense public debate on internal security in Germany. Since the police is the responsibility of the German federal states, Hamburg’s social democratic mayor Olaf Scholz is at the center of accusations that the state authority did not do enough to stop the leftist radicals from devastating parts of the city. Although she accepted her share of responsibility for bringing the summit to Hamburg, Angela Merkel remains on the sidelines of the criticism [1].

The survey Deutschlandtrend regularly asks for the most pressing current political issues. The results published one day before the G20 summit placed security and crime only on the sixth place after refugees and migration, social injustice, pensions, education and unemployment [2]. Now, the violence in Hamburg has pushed this topic into the center of the public attention. Most likely, this will benefit Merkel’s CDU. Not only because the Christian democrats enjoy the highest public trust in matters of security, but also because in the course of the events a leftist coalition, the only realistic perspective for a government without the CDU, has become less probable [3].

The three main left-wing parties, i.e. the social democratic SPD, the Greens and the socialist Left, are struggling with the ongoing controversy. Unlike most of the public, a share of the German political left feels that the police bears part of the blame [4]. This makes it difficult for the leading figures of the left parties to display a coherent message condemning the violence in Hamburg. It also revealed conflicting positions among the future coalition partners.

The SPD is reacting to this desperate situation with what the conservative FAZ calls “aggressive weepiness” [5]. Attacking Merkel for choosing the Hanseatic metropolis does not seem to be a convincing strategy, though, since it implies that Germany, unlike previous host countries, is not able to provide public safety on a G20 summit in a city of that size. Especially since Hamburg’s mayor Scholz, a high-ranking SPD politician, guaranteed public security before the event [6].

One could assume that the ring-wing AfD would gain political capital in the course of the leftist riots. However, the party is currently very much engaged in infighting and therefore not able to communicate a clear political line [7]. One day after the riots, party chair Frauke Petry had to withstand the attempt of members of her local party congress to deprive her of the candidature in the federal elections [8]. As a member of the regional assembly of Saxony, she is currently facing the possibility that her immunity will be lifted due to allegations of perjury [9]. A few days later, co-chair Jörg Meuthen declared his intention to challenge her at the next party congress in December [10]. Notably, the AfD statement about the riots that received most attention was a tweet by a member of the state parliament of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, who suggested to simply shoot those that  looted shops during the G20 summit.

All this illustrates, why the issue most Germans currently worry about is not on the public agenda. When it comes to migration, the parliamentary left is more liberal than the Christian democrats. The AfD, on the other hand, is mainly dealing with itself, only sometimes attracting negative attention by radical or scandalous claims. To many conservative voters, who are unhappy with Merkel’s management of the refugee crisis, the self-declared “Alternative for Germany” is no reliable alternative to the Christian democrats. The open dispute between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU regarding a “upper limit” of the capacity to admit refugees might even have helped to reconcile Merkel’s critics with the two-headed Christian democrats.

Merkel’s preferred partner, the libertarian FDP, is gaining support again after its humiliating exit from the federal parliament in the previous elections. Traditionally the lobby of businessmen and lawyers, the FDP’s charismatic leader Christian Lindner reinvented the image of the FDP, making it attractive for young and ambitious voters [11].

It seems as if there is not much that could prevent Merkel from remaining in office. But there are still two months left – almost an eternity in an election campaign, all the more in these unsteady times.



[1] NDR: “G20: Merkel stellt sich hinter Scholz”, July 16,2017.

[2] Ehni, Ellen: “G20-Gipfel? Aufwand zu hoch!”, tagesschau.de, July 6, 2017.

[3] Weiland, Severin: “Wahlkampfschläger”, Der Spiegel, July 12, 2017.

[4] Geyer, Steven: „Polizei in der Kritik“, Frankfurter Rundschau, July 7, 2017.

[5] Carstens, Peter: “Der angriffslustige Kanzlerkandidat”, FAZ, July 16, 2017.

[6] Lehmann, Anna: “Eine Regierungskrise, die keine sein darf“, taz, July 11, 2017.

[7] Klarmann, Michael: “Schonfrist für Petry“, heise, July 11, 2017.

[8] Martin, David: “Alternative for Germany’s Frauke Petry survives attempted in-party putsch”, dw.com, July 9, 2017.

[9] Krug, Christian: “German prosecutor wants AfD leader Petry’s immunity lifted”, politico.eu, June 19, 2017.

[10] Schneider, Jens “Jetzt schon an Dezember denken?”, July 17, 2017.

[11] Weiland, Severin: “FDP-Comeback geschafft? Beinahe!“, Spiegel Online, July 13, 2017.