Loudspeakers pumped out a rhythmic “welcome” rock tune as the mostly elderly Merkel fans stood up in unison, hauled out their smartphones and snapped hundreds of “I saw Angie in the flesh” photos of the Chancellor. “She’s wonderful. It’s such a pleasure to see her here,” former maths teacher Gisela Hahn-Schmidt, 66, told The Independent. “Frau Merkel is having a tough time at the moment, so she needs our support more than ever.”
Germany’s first female leader was in the well-to-do health resort town to campaign for her ruling Christian Democrats. The party faces a crucial test in just over a week’s time in three state elections which may well determine how long Ms Merkel can survive in power.
All three polls in the western states of Baden Württemberg, Rhineland Palatinate and eastern Saxony Ahhalt have, for weeks, been dominated by Ms Merkel’s eternally controversial “open door” refugee policy which allowed more than a million migrants to enter Germany last year and shows little sign of slowing.
Despite the continuing respect Ms Merkel receives as a proven “world leader” and her “We can do it” mantra concerning the refugee crisis, voters including many in her own party seem poised to punish her for apparently thinking too much about the world and not enough about Germany.
The elections are certain to benefit the recently formed, xenophobic and populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. which is on course to secure the biggest political gains by a far-right organisation since 1945. It recently advocated shooting illegal refugees at Germany’s borders and could win up to 20 per cent of the vote in the east.
Current opinion polls show that more than 80 per cent of Germans think Ms Merkel’s government has “lost control” of the refugee crisis. And, as neighbouring Austria and the Balkan countries close their borders to refugees, there is a growing chorus of German conservatives who want to do the same. Yet Ms Merkel went on national television last week to insist that she was not for turning.
Anti-Merkel sentiment was palpable in Bad Kreuznach as soon as the Chancellor broached the subject of refugees. “We want to tangibly reduce the numbers entering. The question is, how are we going to do this on a sustainable basis?” she asked her supporters. “We have to deal with the cause of what makes refugees flee!” was her answer, to feeble applause.
Ms Merkel set out how her government hopes to use Monday’s EU-Turkey summit to enlist Ankara’s help to hold back the refugee tide in return for billions in EU cash. But for many of her supporters, that would be too little too late. “Merkel has gone too far with the refugees, she has bitten off more than we can chew and frankly I fear for Germany’s future,” said Bernd Kassmann, a retired shop owner in his 70s. “I’m not voting for her again. I may even vote for the AfD. At least they have a clear view on the refugee problem.