Sunday is Germany's Judgment Day; the people will vote in a referendum on Chancellor Merkel's refugee policies. It's the day they vote on the chancellor's ability to continue to make Germany feel safe and welcoming, after one million migrants entered the country last year, and with hundreds of thousands more expected. But first and foremost, it will be the definitive test for Merkel ahead of her nomination for a fourth term.
On Sunday, three German states will vote on whether or not to renew their regional parliaments' terms. This year matters more than ever before, both at a national and a European level. For one, the decision will affect roughly 17 million Germans -- 20 percent of the population. In addition, the vote comes at a crucial moment, with right-wing xenophobia and nationalism on the rise on one hand, and cracks appearing in the ironclad CDU-CSU alliance on the other.
Additionally, if the German political center of gravity shifts to the right, that may have repercussions across Europe, especially if Germany's policies on opening its borders and hosting refugees, Syrian or otherwise, should change. So far, Merkel has never shown even the slightest sign of making concessions on the topic.
These days, local elections and polls are causing waves in the usually calm, placid lake of German politics. One noteworthy election was the one held last week in Hesse, in the center of Germany. The populist right-wing party Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) won 13.2 percent of the vote, becoming that region's third most prominent party.
The polls brought even worse news. The xenophobes and Islamophobes who make up the AfD are expected to come in third in all three states holding elections this weekend, with projected results ranging from 9 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate to as much as 19 percent in Saxony-Anhalt, and 13 percent in Baden-Württemberg.
The extent of the shift in votes from the popular party to the AfD this Sunday will give us a better sense of just how far to the right the epicenter of German politics may move.
These three regions are considered to be fairly representative of Germany's socio-economic fabric. Baden-Württemberg, where the capital is Stuttgart, has roughly 10 million inhabitants. It is among the wealthiest and most competitive regions in Europe, perhaps second only to Bavaria. To get a better idea, just consider that Baden-Württemberg hosts the headquarters of major companies including Porsche, Daimler and Bosch, among others. The situation in Rhineland-Palatinate is comparable. Meanwhile, the composition of Saxony-Anhalt is completely different: an ex-DDR region, Saxony-Anhalt is struggling with one of the highest unemployment rates in Germany. It is one of the German states that has witnessed the highest number of xenophobic attacks. It's the kind of place where a tired clichés such as "they come here and steal our work and women" still resonates. In other words, it's a sort of prototypical region for AfD propaganda.
And the propaganda is downright scary. Through its leader Frauke Petry, this three year-old group fills the airwaves with every venomous statements imaginable, including a suggestion to gun down men, women and children in order to protect German borders. (Petry later backed away from this statement, but only as far as children were concerned.) Obviously, references to the current wave of immigrants was anything but accidental.
Another popular party theme is the need to abolish abortion because "German politics is responsible for guaranteeing the survival of its people, its nation."
And how could we overlook one of the cornerstones of AfD's electoral campaign in Saxony-Anhalt: officials must "revise education programs" in order to put less focus on the "twelve unfortunate years" that constitute the Nazi period. Naturally, these words are slaps in the face for the average German, but they clearly appeal in some way to the part of the right-wing constituency that is more inclined to populism and nationalism, and which had up until this point considered the CDU-CSU alliance a good answer on the ballot.
The extent of the shift in votes from the popular party to the AfD this Sunday will give us a better sense of just how far to the right the epicenter of German politics may move. Further, it will give us a better idea of just how dangerous the immediate consequences will be for Merkel. Some of these may include the reinforcement of the anti-migrant segment of the CDU, the deepening of nationalistic drives in its twin party, the CSU, and the inevitable friction in the government with SPD allies. These three factors risk damaging Angela's journey toward another term. But most of all, they may prompt a less flexible and more retrograde approach to the refugee crisis. Obviously, this would have incendiary effects at the European level, eliminating the last true defense against the powerful isolationist impulses represented by the east, particularly those of the Visegrad Group.
It is no surprise that Merkel, well aware of the risks, wanted to arrive at Sunday's elections with an agreement with Turkey for managing the refugee crisis in her pocket. A deal with a clear objective: showing the German public that their chancellor is doing everything she can to curb the tide of migrants, removing any incentive they have to cross the Mediterranean. But that agreement didn't happen on time; everything has been pushed back to the next European summit, forcing Merkel to face the elections "unprotected" in the face of the right-wing. This means having to pay a political price in order to continue keeping borders open for migrants, something the chancellor has valiantly defended to date.
Sunday night, in Germany and by extension in the rest of Europe, we will face a new political scenario. Will Merkel manage to face it like a strong leader, just as she has done so far, instead of being slowly but surely destroyed by it? Will she be able to lead her country and sidestep simplistic, self-serving acts, as she has courageously in the past? Certainly a great deal will depend on her own personal skills, but that won't be enough. A lot, perhaps everything, will depend an entirely different entity: the German people.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.