Before independent mayoral candidate Henriette Reker was stabbed by a violently anti-immigrant constituent during a campaign event Saturday, she was seen as just one of several possible winners in the race to be mayor of Cologne.
Now she’s being seen as an indicator that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial open-arms welcome of refugees has broad support among German voters.
The suspect – described only as an out of work contractor – told police he was motivated to stab the candidate in the neck by the pro-refugee position of both Reker and Merkel, who supported her candidacy.
Reker, 58, was put into an induced coma on Saturday after surgery to save her life. On Sunday, she collected 52.7 percent of the vote to become the new Oberbuergermeister (mayor of a large city) of Cologne, Germany’s fourth largest city.
In a nation known for a balance of support for a number of political parties, it was an impressive showing in a mayoral election – and a reflection of public opinion as Germany moves forward with its ambitious program of accepting refugees from wars and deadly unrest in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Germany is expected to review the asylum applications of perhaps more than a million refugees this year, and may approve as many as half of those.
Not only did Reker win an unlikely majority in a multi-candidate election, but the second-place candidate was also pro-refugee and collected 32 percent. The candidate of the most prominent anti-immigrant political party in Germany, Alternative for Deutschland, took just 4 percent, and a more radical anti-immigrant party didn’t poll even 1 percent.
How the result fits in with German opinion polls that show fear of immigration growing is uncertain. Recent polls by the well regarded Emnid polling group have found 39 percent of Germans fear the refugee influx and 64 percent want a referendum on the conditions of accepting refugees. Only 24 percent believe the current crisis will increase societal cohesion.
Some have used the poll results to argue that Germany’s newfound “welcoming culture” is fading. “The chancellor is at a point of no return. For the first time, she is standing for something that the majority of the nation feels uneasy about. Germans used to trust her blindly. Many no longer trust her to do the right thing,” Dresden Technical University sociologist Werner Patzelt argued in the German newspaper Tagesspiegel.
That didn’t appear to be case in Cologne, where voters rallied to Merkel’s candidate.
Reker had been Cologne’s top social welfare official, and as part of that job she ran the ancient city’s refugee housing program. As such, even as an independent, she was tightly tied to Merkel’s Christian Democrats in this vote.
Peter Altmaier, head of the Merkel’s federal refugee plan, said it was important that Germans reject the motives behind the stabbing.
“It was despicable and hideous,” he said in statement to reporters. “Even if we don’t know the exact background, we have to constantly distance ourselves clearly from any kind of xenophobia and violence.”
The state Green Chairman Sven Lehmann said in a press statement that voters responded to the substance of Reker’s campaign, not the flashing of a knife.
“A courageous and charismatic woman without party affiliation has won,” he said. “This will have an impact on the country. I think she was elected out of conviction, not out of sympathy.”
The number of refugees in Germany has ballooned. At the beginning of August, the expected number of arrivals was 400,000. By the end of the month, that number had swollen to 800,000. By early September, some politicians were saying a million was a more likely number.
In recent days, some government officials have suggested the number arriving to seek asylum could reach 1.5 million in 2015, though others have called that “highly unlikely.”
Doctors in Cologne say that Reker is expected to make a full recovery, “at least physically.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews