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Can Merkel win back voters’ trust without abandoning refugees?

  • Published at 12:01 am September 9th, 2016
Can Merkel win back voters’ trust without abandoning refugees?

Chancellor Angela Merkel took responsibility for her party’s election defeat in the German state where she has her political base, but strongly defended her migrant policy on Monday even as she vowed to win back voters’ trust, reports The Associated Press.

A year before an expected national election, a nationalist, anti-immigration party’s second-place finish Sunday ahead of Merkel’s conservatives was a jolt that will likely increase tensions in Germany’s governing coalition. However, the result didn’t pose any immediate threat to Merkel, 62, Germany’s leader since 2005.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union finished third in the election for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s state legislature, behind the three-year-old Alternative for Germany, or AfD. It was held exactly a year after she decided to let in migrants stuck in Hungary, triggering the peak of last year’s influx. Merkel conceded the outcome was “almost entirely about federal political issues.”

The centre-left Social Democrats, Merkel’s partners in Germany’s national government, remained the strongest party in Mecklenburg. They have led the regional government for a decade with the CDU as junior partner, a coalition they can continue if they choose.

The region is sparsely populated, but the vote was symbolically significant because Merkel’s parliamentary constituency is there. It was the first of five regional ballots before a national election a year away. The next is September 18 in Berlin, where local issues are likely to feature more strongly.

Mecklenburg is home to few foreigners, but Merkel acknowledged that migrant policy was a dominant theme.

New arrivals have slowed drastically after more than 1 million people were registered as asylum-seekers in 2015, and asylum policies have been tightened. Still, New Year’s Eve robberies and sexual assaults blamed largely on foreigners, and two attacks in July carried out by asylum-seekers and claimed by the Islamic State group, have fed tensions.

“We must all consider how we can now win back trust, me first and foremost,” Merkel told reporters on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in China.

“I am the party leader, I am the chancellor — you can’t separate those in people’s eyes, so I am of course responsible too” for the result, Merkel said. “However, I believe the decisions that have been made were right, and now we must continue working.”

She added that “the issue of integration will play a huge role in that, and the question of the repatriation of refugees who have no residence permit here.”

Merkel’s critics have faulted her for sticking to her mantra that “we will manage” the refugee crisis. Sunday’s result may make it tougher to smooth over a dispute with the Christian Social Union, her conservative Union bloc’s Bavarian arm, which criticised her welcoming approach from the start and wants an annual migrant cap.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer, Bavaria’s governor, told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that the situation for the conservatives is “highly threatening.” He was quoted as complaining that his “repeated demand for a change of course” on migrant policy hadn’t been heeded and said Sunday’s “disastrous” result was a consequence.

Meanwhile, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrats’ leader and a likely challenger to Merkel next year, underlined his party’s increasing distance from the chancellor as it eyes the national election. He accused her conservatives of being too slow to respond to the migrant crisis.

“We have wasted a great deal of time with unnecessary arguments,” he said, arguing that Merkel had been guilty of “simply repeating ‘we will manage it’ without doing it as well.”

Although Merkel already adjusted migrant policies over the past year, she can’t make a clean break from her overall approach because “that wouldn’t be credible,” political science professor Klaus Schroeder told N24 television. “So the quarrels between the CDU and CSU will continue, and the Social Democrats will turn even more strongly against the Union to have a chance in the national election campaign.”

Merkel’s bloc leads national polls, although her own popularity ratings have dropped from stellar to respectable. She hasn’t yet declared whether she will seek a fourth term next year, but there’s no obvious alternative.

AfD polls between 11 and 14% nationally and appears strongest in the ex-communist east.

It basked Monday in its latest success. Leader Frauke Petry attacked Merkel’s party for saying that “they haven’t done anything wrong. They just didn’t explain their policies.”

“This ignorance is exemplary,” she said. “It is not just ignorance. What we see here is the continuing arrogance of power.”

Petry, whose party has no prospect of going into government in the foreseeable future, complained that its rivals “still think they can label AfD as an undemocratic party.”

On Sunday, AfD won support from across the spectrum to take 20.8 percent of votes, its second-best result yet. That helped push the far-right National Democratic Party out of its last state legislature.

Germany’s Central Council of Jews voiced satisfaction at that development, but also concern about AfD.

AfD “was unfortunately successful with its tactic of feeding prejudice against minorities and offering slogans instead of solutions,” said the council’s head, Josef Schuster.

“Apparently it is not clear to many voters, or they accept this, that AfD doesn’t distance itself clearly from the far-right spectrum either in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania or nationally.”

Germans on edge after attacks

Fears of terrorism run high among AfD supporters after two refugees carried out Islamic State-inspired attacks in July.

“Everyone’s got a lot of thinking to do about winning voters back, and that means first of all me, of course,” said Merkel, who has won the last three federal elections since 2005 but has had to delay her announcement of a run for a fourth term because of CSU opposition, according to Der Spiegel newsmagazine.

Her approval ratings fell 22 points to a five-year low at 45% in the year since she opened the gates to more than a million refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, drawn by Germany’s famed prosperity, order and stability.

The CSU has been railing against Merkel’s steadfast opposition to putting limits on the number of refugees even though Germany took in more than the rest of Europe combined in 2015. Incoming refugee numbers have dropped sharply this year.

There have been rumours that the powerful CSU leader, Bavaria state premier Horst Seehofer, is considering a run for chancellor in 2017 instead of supporting Merkel’s candidacy. That threat had always been thwarted in the past by CDU warnings that it would then run its own campaign in Bavaria.

“We need a change of direction in Berlin,” Bavarian state Finance Minister Markus Soeder told the Bild daily. “The voice of the people can’t be ignored any longer.”

CSU General Secretary Andreas Scheuer, Seehofer’s right-hand man, demanded Merkel drop her opposition to limits on refugees. “It’s obvious who’s to blame for this election - not the CSU.”

Grumbling in CDU ranks is also growing as many fear a drubbing in next year’s federal election would cost it dozens of seats in parliament. The CDU/CSU has slid some eight points to 33 percent in the last year, Infratest Dimap said last week.

“Peoples’ confidence in the chancellor has been badly shaken,” said Erika Steinbach, a CDU MP. “It’s hard to tell if that can be repaired by the election.”

Source: The Christian Science Monitor