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Merkel draws up battle lines ahead of 2017 election

Tuesday, December 6, 2016 - 18:32

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel will outline her battle strategy Tuesday to counter a wave of populism that has consumed key allies abroad, as she launches into campaign mode for next year's elections.

[ESSEN, Germany] German Chancellor Angela Merkel will outline her battle strategy Tuesday to counter a wave of populism that has consumed key allies abroad, as she launches into campaign mode for next year's elections.

Ms 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.

Party faithful from her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) gathering for a two-day annual congress in the western city of Essen are expected to overwhelmingly re-elect Ms Merkel as party chief, rallying behind her bid to stay in power.

During the last party vote in 2014, Ms Merkel garnered 96.7 per cent of support and this week's ballot will be closely scrutinised for any sign of dissent.

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"I'm counting on an honest result," she told public broadcaster ARD, as national media suggested that any score below 90 per cent would be a slap in the face.

Crucially, she will also be grilled on how she plans to stop the populist anti-Islam AfD from further eroding the party's supporter base.

The CDU has suffered setbacks in five consecutive state polls as voters punish Ms Merkel for her liberal refugee policy, with more than a million people seeking asylum in Germany last year.

There have 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 following a crushing referendum defeat championed by populists.

There is concern within CDU rank and file, because Ms Merkel has said she "will stand again, without saying how she will change her policies in the future", Hans Pistner from the Thuringia regional government told regional broadcaster MDR.

Ms Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU secured a decisive win of 41.5 per cent 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 Sept 2015 decision to let in refugees fleeing war in mostly-Muslim nations, in a move that has deeply polarised Europe's biggest economy.

Although Ms Merkel has since moved to slow the influx, including through a highly controversial deal with Turkey, the AfD has gained a firm footing as a protest platform for disgruntled voters.

The AfD now enjoys around 12 per cent support, while at the last general election it fell short of the five-percent threshold to ensure representation.

Ms Merkel's supporters will take heart from a recent survey showing that two in three Germans approve of her bid to stand again.

But with nine months or more to go before the elections, CDU deputy chair Julia Kloeckner said the party must not leave any gaps for the AfD to exploit.

"If we only talk about healthcare for refugees, but not about the shortage of doctors in the country, then the mood will sour," she warned in an interview with Spiegel magazine.

The daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said Ms Merkel's lock on re-election as party leader should not be viewed as an indication that there is no dissent. It said that in the background, key members were starting to think beyond her.

"That's particularly obvious in terms of refugee policies," it said, noting that "much to Merkel's disappointment, the motion put to the congress has been toughened up by the party's federal chiefs".

These included praising the decision by governments in the Balkans to shut down a route used by asylum seekers - something that had previously been sharply criticised by Ms Merkel.

And others want to go further, with CDU deputy chairman Thomas Strobl leading the charge through a demand to ease the deportation process for rejected asylum-seekers.

"We can't just put a notice for departure in people's hands and then not follow through with the law," he said, warning it would "substantially erode" public confidence in the rule of law.

AFP

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