Can Germany's Merkel win back voters' trust without abandoning refugees?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who acknowledged that her strong stance supporting refugees cost her party seats in the weekend's regional election, vowed to win back voter trust without compromising her now year-old policy. 

Markus Screiber/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the German parliament in Berlin on Tuesday.

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.

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 center-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 Sept. 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 criticized 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 percent 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." 

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