Merkel Sticks to Middle Ground in Risky Pitch for German Votes

  • German chancellor signals she won’t troll for populist votes
  • Convention points ruling CDU toward the campaign trail

Angela Merkel.

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Chancellor Angela Merkel is staking out the political center for next year’s German election, resisting pressure by her party critics who blame her policies for encouraging the threat from populists.

Merkel, 62, sought to keep that balance at a convention of her Christian Democratic Union party that outlined themes for her 2017 campaign for a fourth term. She backed the idea of a ban on full-face veils, such as the burqa worn by some Muslim women, but said she’ll ignore a vote by delegates calling for her government to scale back citizenship rights for Germans with foreign roots.

As Merkel prepares for what she says will be her toughest campaign yet, she is testing the patience of some CDU members frustrated with policies they view as alienating socially conservative voters, including her open-door stance on migration. It underscores the risks faced by Europe’s pre-eminent leader as Donald Trump heads for the White House and a German anti-immigration party brands her public enemy No. 1.

“The task above all will be to offer something to all people in this country,” Merkel said in closing remarks as she sent the party onto the campaign trail on Wednesday. “We want to offer something for everyone, not just for particular groups.”

Merkel, 62, now has just over nine months to hone her pitch to voters and overcome a split with the CDU’s Bavarian sister party that’s demanding a cap on migration. She’ll also take her party into three German state election next year before the federal vote.

Though her two-party bloc leads in polls and Merkel’s approval rating has recovered from multi-year lows, her position is a far cry from 2013, when she won the biggest electoral victory since German reunification.

“There’s a negative Merkel effect in this election for the first time,” Karl-Rudolf Korte, head of the School of Governance at Duisburg-Essen University, said in an interview. “Many people hold her personally responsible for the loss of order” during last year’s influx of some 890,000 asylum seekers, making her renewed candidacy a “big risk” for the party, he said.

Merkel’s fortunes may depend on keeping a lid on Germany’s influx of migrants, which has declined to a fraction of last year’s peak through a series of border protection measures elsewhere, including a refugee accord between the European Union and Turkey. At the same time, Merkel is presiding over record low unemployment and rising incomes.

The campaign “won’t only be about the refugee issue,” she said in an interview for the CDU’s Youtube channel. “A lot of it will be about the economy, social security and family policy.”

CDU delegates confirmed Merkel as party chairwoman on Tuesday by a vote of 89.5 percent in favor, the lowest score of her chancellorship. That followed her appeal from the podium for delegates to rally behind her and “help me in times like these.”

The chancellor said she could live with the result. “Actually, I was pleasantly surprised, because we’ve been living in turbulent times,” she said in an interview with ARD television.

While Merkel kept her party behind successive bailouts for Greece to keep the euro together, last year’s refugee crisis is emboldening parts of the CDU that are dissatisfied with her reversals of long-standing policies, including abolition of the military draft and phasing out nuclear power. Her party critics also blame her in part for the rise of Alternative for Germany, the anti-immigration party that’s won seats in 10 of 16 state parliaments.

“I used to be part of the liberal camp in the CDU,” convention delegate Christine Arlt-Palmer, 51, said in an interview. “But when Merkel said at the height of the refugee crisis that Germany is unable to secure its borders, I couldn’t support her anymore.”

Despite the headwinds, all national polls suggest that Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian CSU allies would win the election if it were held now. Support for Merkel’s bloc declined one percentage point to 36 percent and Alternative for Germany fell one point to 10 percent in the weekly Forsa poll published Wednesday. The Social Democrats were unchanged at 22 percent, according to Forsa, which polled 1,007 people on Dec. 1-2. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Peter Tauber, the CDU’s general secretary, suggested that some voters who have drifted to the Alternative for Germany won’t return.

“We need to focus on normal people and their fears and concerns, not the ones who are shouting and screaming,” he said.

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