• World

How the Berlin Terror Attack Exposes Angela Merkel’s Weakness

6 minute read

There are some leaders who can take an act of terrorism and convert the tragedy into political gain. They’re usually leaders on a macho streak, like Recep Tayyip Ergodan of Turkey, who seems to tighten his hold on power no matter how often his cities are attacked, or Vladimir Putin of Russia, who clinched his popularity after the Moscow bombings in 1999 by promising to drown the terrorists “in the outhouse.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not one of those leaders. As Monday’s terrorist attack in Berlin made clear, such tragedies only serve to expose her worst vulnerabilities. Even while police were still inspecting the truck that mowed through a crowded Christmas market that evening, killing 12 people and wounding scores of others, her rivals were piling the blame at the Chancellor’s feet and denouncing her openness toward refugees for effectively “importing” terrorism to Germany. There was not much that Merkel could do to deflect such attacks, especially after police identified the suspect on Wednesday as a Tunisian migrant, and ISIS claimed that one of its “soldiers” had carried out the attack.

The period of mourning and national unity that tends to follow such tragedies did not even last through Monday evening in Berlin. Marcus Pretzell, a lawmaker for the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), sent out this tweet while the victims were still being taken to hospitals and morgues: “These are Merkel’s dead!” The leader of the party’s office in Berlin, Georg Pazderski, at least waited until the next day. “What happened is an outcome of the chaotic migration policy of Mrs. Merkel,” he told TIME in an interview on Tuesday. “She has to answer for this.”

Though premature and rather callous, at least by the prim standards of German politics, these remarks seemed tame compared to the frustrations that regular citizens were expressing online. They had good reason not to feel safe, especially after they learned on Tuesday that the Pakistani refugee originally detained by Berlin police was not the perpetrator — and that the actual truck driver had evaded arrest and remains on the run. The suggestion that Merkel was partly to blame did not strike her countrymen as just a political slur.

It had been her decision to let hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees apply for asylum in Germany last year after fleeing the conflict zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them came without so much as a passport to help police identify who they are and where they came from.

And a few arrived in Germany with terrorist intent or were quickly radicalized, such as the Pakistani teenager who wounded five people with an axe and a knife in the town of Wuerzburg in mid-July, or the 27-year-old Syrian who set off a bomb outside a bar in Ansbach, wounding more than a dozen people the following week. Both of those attackers used Germany’s openness toward refugees to enter the country. And both of them claimed allegiance to ISIS after they arrived.

So it was no surprise that Merkel found it “sickening” to think that Monday’s attacker might also be a refugee. “I know that it would be especially hard for us to bear if someone who had asked for refuge and asylum turned out to have done this,” Merkel said the day after the attack.

It would perhaps be harder still for her conservative allies. For months they have been urging Merkel to distance herself from the plight of refugees, and to focus instead on addressing her voters’ fears over mass immigration. This shift became a question of political survival for Merkel after those two asylum seekers committed back-to-back attacks in July. Her popularity rating dropped 12 percentage points over the following month, while the AfD continued climbing in the polls and winning seats in local legislatures.

Predictably but perhaps too slowly, Merkel responded by tacking rightward, offering her conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, the talking points they wanted to hear. When she accepted their nomination earlier this month to run for another term, she promised the party members that she would never allow last year’s influx of asylum seekers to happen again. She also pulled a page from the anti-Islamic playbook of her rivals in the AfD by pledging to impose a ban, “whenever legally possible,” on Muslim women fully covering their faces in public.

But such belated pandering to the nativists within her coalition did not exactly make for an electrifying platform. “It’s like the stale beer at the bottom of your glass,” Konstantin von Notz, a senior lawmaker in the opposition Green Party, told me after Merkel’s party convention on Dec. 6. “She needs to have a good story about why she is running for a fourth time. And this is not a good story. It’s old. It’s flat.”

What’s worse, she has struggled to tell the conservative story as convincingly as the newcomers who have outflanked her on the right. The AfD defeated Merkel’s party in her own home district during a local election held in September, and with close to 15% support in nationwide polls, it is almost certain to enter the national parliament for the first time during next year’s elections. Since the party was only founded in 2013, most of its support has come from more established forces – especially Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who have not been especially strong on security issues since at least the early 1990s.

After the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall fell, “We thought, ‘Foreign policy? Security policy? All of this defense? It’s not necessary at all, because we are encircled by friends,’” says Norbert Roettgen, a senior lawmaker in Merkel’s party and chairman of the foreign affairs committee in parliament. Only in the last few years has Germany been forced to part with its illusion of security, he says. “Now the problems are coming to us. So we have to engage.”

In the months that remain before election day, Merkel’s chances of winning another term will depend on her ability to engage with voters who sense a variety of threats closing in – most acutely the threats they feel from mass migration. More attacks like that on the Christmas market in Berlin will only heighten that sense of threat, which is already keenly felt. In a Pew Research survey published in July, 61% of respondents in Germany said the arrival of refugees would increase the likelihood of terrorism. “People are asking about their safety and security,” says Pazderski, the AfD leader in Berlin. “We will be offering those answers, and for us, as a young party, this is our big advantage.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com