The notion of the 'alternative' has played a conspicuous role in the recent history of German politics. During the crises of 2011-12, Chancellor Angela Merkel emphatically declared that her government's Euro policies were alternativlos ('without alternative'), in turn providing the impetus for an anti-Euro party called 'Alternative for Germany' (AfD). After the 2013 federal election, the formation of a 'Grand Coalition' between the two major parties, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), effectively served to blunt parliamentary opposition, invigorating fringe parties and anti-Berlin sentiments. 

Then there is Merkel herself. Over eleven years as chancellor, Merkel has attained a seemingly unchallengeable supremacy over both the German and European political landscapes. Yet speculation about her future has simmered over the past few months. Could we be about to witness the re-emergence of the 'alternative'?

In recent weeks, Merkel has stated that she will not decide on her candidacy for the September 2017 election until early next year. Among her inner circle, the consensus is that she desires a fourth term as chancellor, but wants first to soothe tensions within her own side of politics. The origins of these tensions are many, but crystallise above all in the one theme that has dominated German politics and media for the past twelve months: Flüchtlingspolitik ('refugee policy').

Since opening its doors in September 2015, hundreds of thousands of predominantly Syrian refugees have arrived in Germany. Numbers in 2016 are far down on those from 2015, but questions of cost and integration still dominate the news media. Moreover, a series of violent (though isolated) attacks perpetrated by new arrivals have generated deeper anxieties about security and cultural integration. In its current formation, the policy is profoundly unpopular, with voters expressing a particular infuriation at Merkel's unwillingness to compromise or change tack.

These resentments and anxieties have had a profound political impact. Most noticeably, the AfD has transformed from an anti-Euro party into the most visible and vociferous opponent of Merkel's policy. The academics and professionals that formerly fronted it have been squeezed aside, with the party now adopting a populist, anti-establishment tone. In its new manifestation, the AfD has surged in regional elections, attracting 24% of the vote in March's Saxony-Anhalt state election and humiliating the CDU into third place last weekend in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. Its rise represents the most remarkable shift in the German political landscape for some years, and has generated a new sense of panic among large segments of the old political class.

The question facing this class is whether or not to treat the AfD as an electoral danger. The CDU seems divided on the issue, but it's far from clear that the upstart populists represent an electoral threat to the conservatives in particular. As a political party, the AfD is a strange beast indeed. For one, its voters do not overwhelmingly seem to belong to any particular age bracket, profession or level of education. While demonstrating a certain appeal to middle-aged male workers, it also receives high levels of support from the middle class, from women, from the young, and from the tertiary-educated. Moreover, research from last weekend's Mecklenburg-West Pomerania election suggests that the party attracts voters in equal measure from all sections of the political spectrum: its vote was comprised in roughly equal thirds of previous right-leaning voters, previous centrist and left-leaning voters, and previous non-voters.

The AfD's capacity to mobilise this last demographic is fundamental in understanding its rise. Mostly as a result of AfD support, turnout in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania was up 9% from last time. A similar phenomenon was observed in state elections in March. Two key consequences should be taken from this. Firstly, the AfD's success derives above all from its status as a protest party, whose 'anti' stance on establishment politics and culture renders irrelevant the very real and profound ideological differences at the heart of its organisation. On the refugee problem, the AfD may indeed represent an 'alternative', but it visibly lacks cohesion, experience, organisation, political credibility and, most critically, policy solutions.

Secondly, its potential impact at a federal level should not be overstated. In the past few national elections, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania have registered the lowest turnouts of all federal states, while prior to this year a similar pattern was observable in state elections. A protest vote comprised of previous non-voters will necessarily be greater in these states (namely, those which until 1990 formed part of the German Democratic Republic) than in those (predominantly western) areas in which there are fewer non-voters to mobilise.

It is almost certain that the AfD will pass the 5% threshold necessary to enter the Bundestag at next year's federal election, but under present conditions it will not come close to repeating its regional successes. Critically, its current numbers will not translate into a level of support sufficient to confer it any influence in post-election coalition talks. According to the most recent data, it is polling in fourth place, with around 11% of the vote.

So, if not from the AfD, from where might a credible threat to Merkel's power stem?

The most immediately problematic criticisms of Merkel have transpired from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party. It is no secret that the refugee policy has exposed a fault line through the middle of the alliance, with open pleas for a compromise. Irate conservatives such as CSU leader Horst Seehofer have warned of an 'extremely threatening' situation for the union, and in a gesture of false conciliation has called upon the chancellor to apologise and admit fault. Markus Söder, Seehofer's probable successor as CSU leader, has repeatedly urged a change from Merkel's refrain of 'we can do it' to 'we will change it'. But the reality is that the CSU needs the CDU far more than vice-versa. As former CSU chairman Erwin Huber recently put it on social media, 'the CDU and CSU must run with Angela Merkel. There is no alternative!'.

Statements such as Huber's hint at some obvious facts: firstly, that even despite backlash against her refugee policy, Merkel remains popular among the electorate; secondly, that the chancellor has no clear successor in the CDU; and thirdly, that the SPD is unlikely to increase its vote sufficiently to topple the conservatives in September next year. Seen from this perspective, sticking with her is a question of basic pragmatism.

Internal opponents are desperate for a policy compromise on refugees, a public admission of error, or even a wholesale renunciation. But Merkel has proved inflexible on the subject, and has further infuriated her antagonists through her insistence on frequently discussing and defending in public a policy that has generated such political division. Every public reminder of the problem, the argument runs, only serves to damage the chancellor and her Party. In explaining her actions, many have pointed to a thorough inner personal conviction of the policy's inherent humanity, or to Merkel's wish to cement an enduring political legacy. But an additional explanation may lie in the novel German political constellation that the refugee debate has produced.

Some commentators have remarked that Merkel's unprecedented steadfastness in her policy has introduced into German politics a more conspicuously confrontational tone, one that stands in direct contrast to the Chancellor's traditional strategy of a depolarised and centrist pragmatism (or 'asymmetrical demobilisation', as her strategists label it). This undeniable shift in mood has been identified as signalling the end of Merkel's mastery of German politics. But this is a mistaken view. To the contrary, an oppositional approach may actually play into Merkel's hands.

The next election, after all, will in all probability play out as a referendum on the chancellor and her refugee policy. In this context, the contrast Merkel is now setting out to her own party, to the other mainstream parties and to voters more broadly is an elegantly simple one: either you are with her and the course she has set, or you are against her. Faced with such a stark polarity, the opposition parties (whether social democratic, conservative, green or even socialist) will struggle to occupy independent political terrains. Broadly speaking, they will have no choice but to side with Merkel and against the populists. In such a polarised political atmosphere, the chancellor can be confident there is no alternative to her.

Photos: Getty Images/Michael Kappeler, Jens Butler & Sean Gallup