Angela Merkel defends immigration policy after election blow

German chancellor says mainstream parties have a joint responsibility to tackle the rise of the right

Angela Merkel has staunchly defended her government’s immigration policy following dramatic gains by the anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland in regional elections, and said traditional parties have a joint responsibility to tackle the rise of the right.

“The AfD is a challenge for all of us in this house,” the German chancellor told the Bundestag in a combative address in which she made clear that she had no intention of changing her course.

Following the CDU’s dismal showing in elections in Merkel’s constituency of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, she is under mounting pressure from within her party and in particular from its Bavarian sister party the CSU.

The CDU came third with 19% of the vote while the Social Democrats secured 30.6% and the AfD 20.8%.

On Wednesday Merkel urged politicians across the house to rein in the hostile tone of the debate over refugees. “If we seek to get the better of each other for short-term gain … the ones who’ll win are those who depend on slogans and simple answers,” she said. “I am quite certain if we bite our tongues and stick to the truth then we’ll win back the most important thing that we need, the trust of the people.”

Merkel sought to directly address the fears of some Germans that they face lower standards of living and a threat to their traditional cultural values due to the large number of refugees who have arrived since last summer. These concerns were among the most decisive factors in the AfD’s gains at the weekend.

Merkel said Germany’s economic strength meant it would continue to “take care of the weakest in our country”.

“Germany will continue to be Germany, with everything about it that we love and which costs us dear,” she said, stressing that healthy tax revenues, good economic growth and low unemployment would ensure the country’s future prosperity.

Amid growing concerns about security following two violent attacks carried out by refugees, Merkel said: “People can expect that we’ll do everything humanly possible to ensure their safety.”

Her address received warm applause from members of her conservative bloc, but she was criticised by other parliamentarians. Dietmar Bartsch, of the leftwing party Die Linke, which also suffered considerable losses in the state elections, accusing her of “ruling without a vision”.

He said the electorate in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern had sent out the clear signal: “Berlin, we have a problem.” The “sense of insecurity in our country has never been so great”, he said, adding that social cohesion was under threat.

Katrin Göring-Eckardt, leader of the opposition Greens, attacked the EU’s refugee deal with Turkey, which Merkel spearheaded, but gave the chancellor’s refugee policy her tacit support by stressing her conviction that Germany was strong enough to deal with the crisis.

“We are an open, plural society in Europe and we find compromises. And it is our country, the 80% of those who find our democracy and our society good,” she said, in reference to the majority of the electorate who did not vote for the AfD.

Despite many commentators and analysts predicting that the CDU’s poor performance could signal the beginning of the end of Merkel’s decade-long reign, her rating improved in a poll asking whom people would choose as chancellor if they could vote for them directly.

Forty-four percent of those polled said they would vote for Merkel, up three points and giving her a 28point lead over Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partner. The SPD has strongly criticised Merkel’s refugee policy in recent days, having previously supported it.


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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