, Essen, Germany, Dec 6 – Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday lashed populists seeking to exploit Germany’s refugee influx, but set down a tough line on integration — including a ban on the full-face veil — as she launched into election campaign mode.
Outlining a strategy to counter populism that has consumed key allies abroad, Merkel vowed there would be no repeat of last year’s record refugee arrivals.
She also stressed it was legitimate for Germany to expect newcomers to integrate, and this included a rejection of the niqab full-face veil.
“The full veil must be banned wherever it is legally possible,” she told the annual gathering of her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), urging them to back her bid for a fourth term.
Merkel was rewarded with a standing ovation that lasted more than 11 minutes as the majority of the 1,001 delegates present rallied behind her.
“She took on a new tone, she signalled that in the future, refugee and immigration policies will be more restrictive,” Wolfgang Reinhart from the south-western region of Baden-Wuerttemberg told AFP.
But dissenters made their voices heard when delegates were asked to re-elect Merkel as chief for the next two years, as the congress gave her just 89.5 percent — her second worst score, and the worst since she became chancellor in 2005.
Her lowest was in 2004, when she was approved by 88.4 percent.
National media had suggested that a score below 90 percent would be a slap in the face.
– ‘Simple answers’ –
Merkel, who has led Germany for 11 years, last month confirmed she would run for a fourth term but acknowledged that the election would be “more difficult” than any other she has contested.
Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU sailed to a decisive win of 41.5 percent at the last election in 2013 — its best result since national reunification in 1990, on the back of strong approval for her tough stance on austerity for debt-stricken EU nations.
Three years on, there are rumblings of discontent — even within her own party — following her September 2015 decision to admit refugees fleeing war in mostly-Muslim nations, a move that deeply polarised Europe’s biggest economy.
There have also been questions about whether the 62-year-old has fresh ideas to offer in a world upended by Brexit, the surprise election of Donald Trump and the departure of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi following a crushing referendum defeat championed by populists.
The CDU has seen setbacks in five consecutive state polls as voters punished Merkel for her liberal refugee policy, with more than a million people seeking asylum in Germany since 2015.
Merkel reiterated that next year’s poll will “not be a walk in the park” as Germany is deeply polarised, but urged the population to remain “sceptical about simple answers”.
“Rarely is it the simple answers that bring progress to our country,” she said, in a clear reference to the upstart anti-Islam and populist AfD, which Merkel had previously criticised as offering no solutions to problems.
Party members are particularly anxious to halt a haemorrhage of support to the AfD, which now enjoys around 12 percent support, according to opinion polls. At the last general election it fell short of the five-percent threshold to ensure representation.
– Aleppo ‘disgrace’ –
Beyond domestic issues, Merkel also devoted a large part of her address to crises abroad as she noted that in 2016, “the world has not become stronger and more stable, but weaker and more unstable”.
She deplored the failure of the international community to alleviate the suffering in Syria’s besieged city of Aleppo, calling it a “disgrace”.
Merkel said she was shocked to see tens of thousands of Germans hitting the streets to demonstrate against free trade deals but virtually no protests against the bloodletting in Syria.
“There is something wrong there,” she said.
She also underlined the importance of holding the European Union together, saying Germany will do well “only when Europe does well too”.
In the face of the mountain of challenges, Merkel urged her delegates: “You must, you must, help me.”