BERLIN/HAMBURG Popular support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel has tumbled to its lowest level for 4 1/2 years, a poll showed on Wednesday, with a large majority of voters skeptical that her government has the refugee crisis under control.
The survey for public broadcaster ARD also showed a drop in support for Merkel's conservatives, while backing for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party rose to its highest ever point in the poll.
Merkel has come under increasing pressure to reduce the number of migrants after 1.1 million entered Germany last year. Public unease has also grown following a slew of sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve.
The survey, conducted on Feb. 1-2, showed just 46 percent of Germans supported her, the lowest proportion since August 2011. In April last year, before the migrant crisis erupted, she enjoyed the backing of 75 percent.
The poll also found that 81 percent did not believe the government was handling the refugee crisis well - a sign of rising dissatisfaction with efforts to limit the influx of those fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a senior member in Merkel's cabinet and respected veteran in her center-right bloc, on Wednesday defended Merkel's decision to open German borders.
"I think we have done the right thing," Schaeuble said in a speech in the northern city of Hamburg, adding that Germany also had a special responsibility in light of its Nazi past and its role during World War Two.
He said the fact that the government managed to hold out despite growing pressure would turn out to be a "strong asset" for Germany.
Backing for Merkel's conservative bloc, comprised of her Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), also fell four points to 35 points.
The results of the poll highlight the challenge faced by Germany's grand coalition parties - the CDU, CSU and Social Democrats (SPD) - to convince voters they can master the refugee crisis before three state elections scheduled in March.
Meanwhile, the AfD rose three points to 12 percent. The AfD leader suggested at the weekend that police be given powers to use firearms against illegal migrants.
Responding to popular pressure, the government agreed last week to tighten asylum rules. On Wednesday, the cabinet backed plans to declare Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia "safe countries", which would end their citizens' chance of being granted asylum.
The poll showed the public supported efforts to restrict immigration with 88 percent of those surveyed in favor of cutting benefits for refugees who did not integrate and 78 percent approving of declaring North African countries "safe."
(Reporting by Caroline Copley in Berlin and Michael Nienaber in Hamburg; Editing by Mark Heinrich/Hugh Lawson)