Merkel’s Refugee Policies Put to Latest Electoral Test in Berlin

  • Voters in Germany’s largest city cast ballots on Sunday
  • Chancellor’s CDU four percentage points ahead of AfD in polls

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy is facing its second electoral test within weeks as Berlin voters cast their ballots Sunday for a new city government.

Polls suggest the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, will take about 14 percent of the vote in the capital, with support set to decline for both Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats, who have governed the nation’s biggest city for 15 years. Projections based on exit polls will be published at 6 p.m. local time.

Two weeks after beating Merkel’s CDU for the first time in a regional election, the AfD is seeking to extend a string of successes spurred by last year’s refugee crisis. Three polls released in the last week showed Merkel’s party just four percentage points ahead of the AfD in Berlin, which is also one of the country’s 16 states.

Merkel campaigned this week in Berlin against the AfD, criticizing populist “lies” spread on social media. The comments were the chancellor’s latest signal that she’s sticking to her course on refugees even as Alternative for Germany captures voters from established parties in state elections across the nation.

“Right now it’s hard to reach some people with reasoning and still we have to keep trying again and again,” Merkel said in a German radio interview. “I believe that we shouldn’t give up on people who are now casting a protest vote, but rather keep courting them with our policies.”

Faced with a domestic and European backlash against her open-border policy for asylum seekers, Merkel said this past week that finding jobs for refugees will take time. She also acknowledged a “need for discussion” within her government amid a split in her coalition over her refusal to set an immigration cap.

“Voters in Germany use state elections to teach politicians at the national level a lesson,” said Nils Diederich, a professor at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science in Berlin. “At the moment this is particularly true with regard to the refugee policy and statements on refugees in general.”

Horst Seehofer, head of the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, told Der Spiegel in an interview published on Friday that his Christian Social Union was linking supporting Merkel for another term as chancellor with setting an upper limit of 200,000 refugees annually. Merkel has not said whether she intends to run again in next year’s election.

After about 1 million asylum seekers entered Germany last year, the government is projecting that number to fall to 300,000 in 2016.

Merkel’s party was beaten into third place by the AfD on Sept. 4 in the eastern region of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the party took almost 21 percent of the vote. In Berlin, a decline in support for the two biggest parties could bump Merkel’s party out of the city government, where it’s been the junior partner since the last election in 2011.

Nationally, Merkel’s CDU is still in the lead in all surveys, with more than 30 percent backing. Polls suggest the AfD could win as much as 15 percent of the vote in a federal election, giving the party seats in the lower house of parliament for the first time.

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