Merkel's Power Tested as Bavarian Allies Vote for Refugee Curbs

  • Speech in Munich to follow weeks of pressure by Bavarian ally
  • Six of 10 Germans in poll says no one would do better job

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s domestic challenges were laid bare just before her 10th anniversary in office, with her Bavarian allies voting for curbs on refugees that clashes her own open-door policy.

The Christian Social Union party approved a resolution calling for a quota on refugees hours before Merkel was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Munich meeting, seeking to preserve domestic harmony as she pursues international diplomacy to secure the region’s outer border. While Merkel is likely to reaffirm her goal of stemming the influx to Germany, she won’t offer the CSU’s desired cap on migration, according to a person familiar with her thinking.

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel
Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

It’s part of the balancing act as Merkel bets her political future on persuading Germans they can cope with the biggest influx since World War II, risking the standing she’s built up since taking the oath of office a decade ago Sunday. Merkel’s speech in Munich to the sister party of her Christian Democratic Union is scheduled for 5 p.m. local time.

“There is a lot of grumbling” within Merkel’s faction about her handling of the crisis as she pursues her humanitarian convictions, said Jan Kallmorgen, a partner at political consultancy Interel in Berlin. Her position is strengthened, though, because she’s “overwhelmingly respected” abroad and “the only one who has the international standing to work with other leaders” beyond the European Union, he said.

With at least 800,000 asylum seekers expected in Germany this year, Merkel’s stance that the country is morally and legally obliged to accept them has spurred resistance in Bavaria, the main entry point.

“There’s no alternative to an upper limit” and Merkel “knows it too,” Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, who heads the CSU, told reporters Friday before the convention began.

Merkel mollified Seehofer with an agreement on Nov. 5 that includes restrictions on economic migrants from regions such as the Balkans. The Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris exposed the precarious nature of the deal when Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Soeder said on Twitter that the carnage “changes everything” and “we can’t allow illegal and uncontrolled migration.” Seehofer rebuked his minister, saying the two matters are separate.

Who Else?

As towns and cities struggle to shelter and feed refugees and winter approaches, support for Merkel’s CDU-CSU bloc has declined in polls while Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which advocates immigration limits, has gained. The CDU stumbled to 37.5 percent from 42 percent in September, while the AfD has doubled its support to 7 percent, according to an Allensbach poll for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper published Thursday. The Social Democrats, Merkel’s junior coalition partners, were unchanged at 26 percent in the Nov. 1-12 poll.

Merkel’s poll numbers remain well above the lows reached at the height of the euro area’s debt crisis, giving her the clout to stand firm toward her Bavarian regional ally.

While only 32 percent of Germans considered her to be a strong chancellor when she succeeded Gerhard Schroeder in 2005, that number has jumped to 56 percent, according to Allensbach. And while Merkel’s approval ratings have taken a hit with the refugee crisis, 60 percent said they didn’t think another politician would do a better job.

As for the anniversary of her ascent to the chancellorship, Merkel plans to spend it out of the public eye at her apartment in Berlin or at her country house amid the lakes and rolling fields north of the capital, the person familiar with her plans said.

Peter Altmaier, Merkel’s chief of staff, brushed off the dent in support for the government. Other parties “would have a two-week celebration if they had those poll numbers,” he said in Berlin on Thursday. 

“You have to have the courage to act on what you view as necessary and not let the polls be your guide,” Altmaier said.

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