BERLIN • German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to keep pushing for a Europe-wide solution to the migrant crisis despite her conservatives' poor showing in state elections blamed on her liberal refugee policy.
Dr Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was at the receiving end of voters' anger, suffering defeats in two out of three states in regional elections on Sunday - including its traditional stronghold of Baden-Wuerttemberg. "We have to say that yesterday was a difficult day for the CDU," she said yesterday after a meeting of CDU leaders.
The stinging result was accompanied by a surge in backing for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which had sparked outrage by suggesting police may have to shoot at migrants to stop them entering the country.
AfD was already in five of 16 state legislatures, but Sunday's results showed its new strength, although not enough to take power from the major parties. AfD won 15.1 per cent of the vote in Baden-Wuerttemberg and 12.6 per cent in Rhineland-Palatinate, becoming its third-biggest party, according to official results. It took 24 per cent in Saxony-Anhalt, emerging as the second-biggest party, according to projections by ARD and ZDF television.
AfD was launched in 2013 as an anti-euro party but has since shifted its focus to migrants, campaigning against mosques and urging voters to have more children to avoid the need for immigration.
Some of its leaders have voiced sympathy for the Islamophobic Pegida movement, whose "Wutbuerger", literally "enraged citizens", share its deep distrust of the established parties and media, which they label a disconnected elite or power cartel.
AfD's rise "shows that Germany has caught up with all other European countries: It has finally lost its immunity against populist parties", wrote ING-DiBa bank analyst Carsten Brzeski.
While they have no direct impact on Dr Merkel's chancellorship, the polls were a key test ahead of general elections next year.
She has so far resolutely refused to impose a cap on refugee arrivals, insisting instead on common European action that includes distributing asylum-seekers among the European Union's 28 member states.
"Without a doubt, we have come a long way towards solving the refugee issue, but we still don't have a sustainable solution. I am fully convinced that we need a European solution and that this solution needs time," she said yesterday.
Bild daily called the regional polls "a day of horror for Chancellor Merkel", while Spiegel Online described it as "Black Sunday for the CDU".
For most of the last decade, Dr Merkel has enjoyed stellar popularity ratings as she pushed a middle-ground politics. Although her strategy has allowed her party to win over some from the centre-left Social Democrats, critics say it has left its right flank exposed.
AfD may now have filled this gap, helped by the arrival of 1.1 million asylum-seekers last year in Germany that has unsettled the population.
"The people who voted for us voted against this refugee policy," AfD deputy chairman Alexander Gauland said. "We have a very clear position on the refugee issue: We do not want to take in any refugees."
The polls came days before Dr Merkel is due at an EU summit to bang out a deal with European partners and Turkey on resolving the crisis.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES