Merkel Hones Pitch to Voters to Counter Threat of Election Slump

  • German chancellor hints at tax cuts in television interview
  • Reaches out to Turkish-rooted voters amid populist challenge

Chancellor Angela Merkel made a pitch to win back voters dismayed by the influx of refugees and Germany’s deepening involvement in international crises, hinting at tax cuts and attempting to broaden her party base with an appeal to citizens of Turkish descent.

Just over a year before the next federal election, Merkel fielded questions in a television interview on eastern Europe’s reluctance to accept Muslim refugees, relations with Turkey, sanctions against Russia and the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. Each time, she gave little ground and sought to present herself as in control and her policies as the only way to maintain stability.

Confronted with a populist challenge from the Alternative for Germany party and polls suggesting half of Germans don’t want her to run again, Merkel heads back to campaigning on Monday in Schwerin, the capital of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, her political homeland and one of two states holding elections next month. She resumes European diplomacy later in the week with separate trips to meet French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as EU leaders prepare for their first summit without the U.K. in Bratislava on Sept. 16.

“We all agree that Britain’s exit is a deep watershed,” Merkel said in the nationally televised Sunday interview with broadcaster ARD. “Before jumping into some kind of hectic activity, maybe we should first think calmly about what we can do better.”

State Elections

With election season upon her after Europe’s summer break, Merkel received support from Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble in pushing back against the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which polls suggest will take about 20 percent of the vote in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Sunday.

At a public event in Berlin, which holds state elections two weeks later, Schaeuble urged German voters to shun “radical demagogues” on the right and left. During an open-house day at the chancellery, Merkel hosted Jerome Boateng, Germany’s soccer player of the year, who told her that he had problems as a child because of his skin color. Berlin-born Boateng, whose father is Ghanaian, got caught up in politics in May when a leading AfD politician suggested people wouldn’t want “someone like” him as a neighbor.

Merkel honed her election pitch in the interview with an opening to tax cuts after the next election. Schaeuble and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who heads Merkel’s Social Democratic coalition partner, urged tax relief in comments on Sunday, signaling growing pressure to distribute the fruits of Germany’s balanced budgets.

Tax Cuts

Lawmakers from Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led bloc plan to gather Thursday for a two-day retreat to plot electoral strategy, with refugees, Europe and the economy on the agenda. While Merkel’s poll ratings and support for the Christian Democratic Union have slumped amid the refugee crisis, her bloc still leads the Social Democrats by as many as 13 percentage points in national polls.

Merkel said she welcomes the debate on taxes and signaled she’ll take a stand next spring when the 2016 budget data are in. “I’d be happy for us to take a look at that time,” she said. “I’ll feel encouraged if the budget shows a healthy cushion next spring. Now let’s first balance the budget.”

Schaeuble gave his most explicit backing for tax cuts in the next legislative period, saying that a call by a party colleague to lower taxes by 15 billion euros ($17 billion) each year is “the right thing and has been agreed with me.”

Amid fraught relations with Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown in the wake of a failed military coup, Merkel defended the EU’s refugee accord with Turkey and reached out to voters with Turkish roots. “I’m also their chancellor,” she told ARD, urging them to participate in Germany’s future.

Asked to declare whether she’ll seek a fourth term next year, Merkel remained noncommittal. “I will report to you on that at the appropriate time,” she said.

— With assistance by Brian Parkin

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