Merkel faces nationalist threat in key regional vote
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A rising nationalist party is expected to exploit unease about Chancellor Angela Merkel's migrant policy in three German state elections this weekend, the first significant political test since last year's massive influx of refugees.
'Alternative for Germany', or AfD, formed three years ago, is wooing voters with slogans such as "ENOUGH!" and "Secure borders instead of borderless crime."
The anti-immigrant party is expected to enter legislatures Sunday in three diverse regions: prosperous Baden-Wuerttemberg in the southwest, neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, and economically disadvantaged Saxony-Anhalt in the east.
Some parties have refused to work with it, but its performance could complicate efforts to form state governments – particularly in Saxony-Anhalt, where polls give it up to 19 percent support.
Germany registered nearly 1.1 million people as asylum-seekers last year as Merkel insisted "we will manage" the challenge, a stance lauded by many but that drove many German voters into AfD's arms.
"What she did was issue a political invitation to a great many people in the world to set off for Europe, with catastrophic consequences for the structure of a Europe of freedom," AfD leader Frauke Petry recently told foreign reporters.
'Working on emotions'
Merkel is doggedly pursuing an elusive pan-European solution to the migrant crisis, even as other countries shut borders and German conservative allies demand stricter measures, such as refugee quotas.
On the eve of the vote, she defended her position on refugees at a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) rally in Baden-Wuerttemberg.
"There are situations in life – and this was the case last autumn - when you can't hold a long debate on principles," Merkel said. "People are suddenly there and need protection."
Earlier this week, the chancellor said that for "all those who want a constructive solution, who want to move things ahead, AfD is completely the wrong party," accusing it of "working on emotions."
But Petry, whose party already has lawmakers in five German state parliaments and in the European Parliament, argues that "having taken more than 1 million asylum seekers and awaiting many more, awaiting families as well, is going to cause huge problems in Germany."
Merkel's own ratings have fallen over recent months but recently started recovering. The next national election is expected in late 2017, by when other parties hope AfD's popularity will have subsided.
However, Sunday looks like being uncomfortable for both Merkel's conservative CDU party and its partners in the federal government, the centre-left Social Democrats.
Merkel's party leads Saxony-Anhalt's government and hopes to oust centre-left governors in the other two states, but their chances no longer look so good.
In Baden-Wuerttemberg, a traditional stronghold where Merkel's CDU finished first in 2011 but lost power to a Green-led coalition, polls suggest the party could be embarrassingly beaten to first place by the left-leaning Greens.
Winfried Kretschmann, the Green governor, has a reassuringly conservative image and many prefer him to little-known CDU challenger Guido Wolf. He even sounds more enthusiastic about Merkel's refugee policies than Wolf.
Wolf and Julia Kloeckner, who hopes to become Rhineland-Palatinate's governor, have tried to put a little distance between themselves and Merkel's migrant approach, calling for Germany to impose daily refugee quotas – a gambit that may backfire, giving the impression of disunity.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
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