Merkel takes some blame for poor Berlin election performance

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel took partial responsibility for her party’s worst-ever performance in a Berlin state election, acknowledging Monday that her government’s policies at the national level were a factor.

Merkel pledged to work harder to address people’s concerns, particularly on migrants. Her Christian Democratic Union party, or CDU, received just 17.6 percent of the vote in the German capital.

“That’s very bitter,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin, referring to the drop of almost 6 percentage points her party suffered.

The result means that Berlin state’s current coalition government, in which the CDU is the junior partner to the center-left Social Democrats, or SPD, has no majority going forward. A three-way coalition of Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left Party is now likely in the capital.

While the Berlin vote was partly seen as a referendum on Merkel’s handling of the migrant crisis, the state government has no control over Germany’s immigration policy. The left-leaning coalition that could now take over office would likely be more welcoming of refugees than the current state government.

Both CDU and SPD — which saw its share of the vote drop 6.7 points to 21.6 percent — lost voters to the nationalist Alternative for Germany, which has campaigned heavily against immigration. The party, known as AfD, entered its 10th state parliament Sunday with 14.2 percent of the vote. The nationalists’ strong result is particularly remarkable because the city of 3.5 million is usually known for its liberal attitude.

“I take responsibility as party leader and chancellor,” Merkel said at a news conference alongside her party’s mayoral candidate, Frank Henkel.

Speaking in unusually self-critical terms, Merkel edged away from her oft-repeated mantra — first uttered during the height of the migrants crisis last year — that “we will manage.”

Merkel said that while she stands by the sentiment, some voters had taken it as a provocation in view of the massive challenge that the country faces integrating hundreds of thousands of migrants.

Merkel added that she’s prepared to address voters’ concerns about the unprecedented influx of migrants over the past year, but that if people simply don’t want Muslim asylum-seekers because of their religion, then that would be counter to her Christian Democratic Party’s basic principles, as well as Germany’s.

“The CDU and I can’t go along with that,” she said.

Henkel, who has been in charge of security matters in Berlin for the past five years, added it was wrong to think there had been no improvement over the past year. He noted that last fall up to 1,000 refugees were arriving in the capital each day, while that figure is down to between 25 and 30 now.

Berlin’s notoriously inefficient bureaucracy, rising rents and ailing transport infrastructure — especially the much-delated new airport — dominated the election campaign in Germany’s biggest city, driving voters away from the centrist coalition toward the left and right.

The anti-capitalist Left Party, a descendant of the former East German communists, gained 3.9 points to 15.6 percent. The Green Party received 15.2 percent, down by 2.4 percentage points.

Many disillusioned Berliners who didn’t vote in the last election backed the nationalist Alternative for Germany, however, driving turnout up to 66.9 percent from 60.2 percent in 2011.

The three-year-old party came fresh from election success in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania two weeks ago, where it beat Merkel’s CDU into third place.

Party leaders announced Monday that they are now setting their sights on next year’s federal election and aiming for a double-digit result. AfD narrowly missed clearing the 5-percent threshold to enter the national Parliament in 2013. Since then, the party has shifted rightward and campaigned heavily against immigration.

Party co-chairwoman Frauke Petry cited recent opinion polls predicting the party could receive 14 to 15 percent at the national level and suggested that AfD would be prepared to take on government responsibility from 2021 if it gets sufficient backing from voters.

AfD has been dogged by revelations about members espousing extremist views and having ties to far-right groups — including two candidates who stood for the party in Berlin. Co-chairman Joerg Meuthen said AfD was trying to solve the problem and stressed that the party wouldn’t tolerate anti-Semitism in its ranks.

Merkel said her party would reach out to disaffected voters, including those who had backed AfD in recent elections due to fears about the impact that migrants will have on the country.

“Germany will change, as we will all change, if we’re not of stone,” she said. “But its foundations won’t be shaken.”

She declined to declare whether she will seek a fourth term in next year’s election, though she is widely expected to do so.

Merkel indicated that she was willing to offer an olive branch to the CDU’s Bavaria-only sister-party, which is part of her government at the national level together with the Social Democrats.

Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, who has been sharply critical of the chancellor on the migrants’ issue, told Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Monday that the situation for his and Merkel’s Union bloc “has never been so difficult.”

Merkel said she wouldn’t accept a “static” cap on the number of migrants coming to Germany, leaving open the possibility that some sort of flexible maximum could be introduced — a position she has previously rejected.


David Rising contributed to this story.

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