MAGDEBURG, Germany (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel pleaded with German voters on Saturday to show patience with her refugee policy as anger builds over a record influx of migrants that could hurt her conservatives in three state elections next month.
Merkel’s popularity has fallen over her decision last year to open Germany’s doors to refugees fleeing conflicts. But her Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU) allies remain top in opinion polls.
“I know that the people are impatient and want fast answers but fast answers are often the wrong answers,” Merkel told CDU supporters in Magdeburg, capital of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, at a campaign launch event for the state votes.
Merkel acknowledged that the refugee influx would be the top issue in all three votes. In Saxony-Anhalt it has led to a surge in support for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing anti-immigrant party, which is polling at 15 per cent.
“This is why I am aware that this election campaign will be a difficult one,” she added.
Merkel, who for years has been her conservative bloc’s main electoral asset, has rejected demands by CSU leader Horst Seehofer to close Germany’s border with Austria and put a cap on the number of refugees that Germany would take each year.
Instead she is trying to convince Turkey to help Europe stem the flow and her European partners to take quotas of refugees to make the flow more manageable.
Over a thousand people continue to poor over the border each day. The arrival of 1.1 million migrants last year prompted a rise in the popularity of the AfD, which has been drawing voters away from the conservatives.
‘STOP GLOSSING OVER MIGRANT CRISIS’
“I expect Merkel to really say in concrete terms how we’re going to do this,'” said Silvia Franke, 58, one of about 500 CDU supporters who gathered at a hotel to listen to Merkel, referring to the chancellor’s ‘Wir schaffen das’, or “we can do this”, mantra.
“She simply can’t continue glossing over all the problems that arise with the mass migration. Things don’t look good in the CDU base right now,” Franke added.
Despite growing anger at her refugee policy, Merkel remains popular among conservative voters..
This was on display in Magdeburg, a city of some 230,000 people. Merkel drew a standing ovation when she entered the hotel hall and the CDU crowd cheered for about a minute at the end of her speech.
The conservative bloc is polling at 36 percent nationally, down from 41.5 percent in the 2013 federal election, which secured Merkel a third term.
Voters in Saxony-Anhalt as well as in the south-western states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate go to the polls on March 13.
Polls suggest that Merkel’s party has a good chance of retaining power in Saxony-Anhalt and ousting leftist coalitions in the two other states.
In all three regions, her conservatives could end up running “grand coalitions” with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), mirroring her right-left partnership at the federal level.
Such a result could help silence critics in her party who have been demanding a tougher crackdown on migration. But if the influx of refugees accelerates again as summer approaches, the respite for Merkel could prove short-lived.
Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Paul Carrel and Noah Barkin