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Merkel in firing line over refugees after regional vote 'debacle'

[BERLIN] German Chancellor Angela Merkel was facing fresh pressure Monday after a regional election drubbing described as a "debacle" over her liberal refugee policy.

Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union was at the receiving end of voters' anger, suffering defeats in two out of three states in regional elections - including its traditional stronghold Baden-Wuerttemberg.

The stinging result for the conservative CDU was accompanied by a surge in backing for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which had sparked outrage by suggesting police may have to shoot at migrants to stop them entering the country.

The elections were the biggest since Germany registered a record influx of refugees, and largely regarded as a referendum on Ms Merkel's decision to open the country's doors to people fleeing war.

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While they have no direct impact on her chancellorship, the regional polls in the southwestern states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate as well as eastern state Saxony-Anhalt served as a key test ahead of general elections in 2017.

Ms Merkel, who is expected to give her first reactions to the polls at around midday on Monday, has so far resolutely refused to impose a cap on refugee arrivals, insisting instead on common European action that includes distributing asylum seekers among the EU's 28 member states.

But Sunday's results could strengthen the hand of her adversaries, including strident critics within her Bavarian allies, the CSU.

"The only logical consequence of the result is a significant correction in the refugee policy," said Hans Michelbach, the vice-chair of the CSU's faction in the lower house of parliament.

The CSU, whose region is the main gateway to Germany for tens of thousands of refugees, has for months noisily criticised Ms Merkel's policy.

Bild daily called the regional polls "a day of horror for Chancellor Merkel," while Spiegel Online described it as "Black Sunday for the CDU".

"For a long time she had hoped that despite all the opposition to her refugee policy, to grab the two state premierships in the southwestern states. That's not happening," said Spiegel in an editorial.

"Merkel will now have to live with the accusation that she has allowed the AfD to establish itself to the right of the CDU." For most of the last decade, Ms Merkel has enjoyed stellar popularity ratings as she pushed a middle-ground politics.

Although her strategy has allowed her party to win over some from the centre-left Social Democrats, critics say it has left its right flank exposed.

AfD may now have filled this gap, helped by the arrival of 1.1 million asylum seekers last year in Germany that has unsettled the population.

"The people who voted for us voted against this refugee policy," AfD deputy chairman Alexander Gauland said.

"We have a very clear position on the refugee issue: we do not want to take in any refugees." In Sunday's vote, AfD captured seats into all three states and gained as much as one in four votes in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, emerging as the second-biggest party. In Rhineland-Palatinate, it rose to become the third-biggest.

Nevertheless, leading politicians in Ms Merkel's left-right coalition were standing firm on their policy.

Asked if Ms Merkel should now overhaul her refugee policy, CDU general secretary Peter Tauber said: "I don't see that need." "We have a clear position on refugee policies and we stand by that," said SPD leader Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.

The polls came days before Ms Merkel is due at an EU summit to bang out a deal with European partners and Turkey on resolving the migrant crisis.

She risks isolation at Thursday's meeting, however, due to misgivings among Eastern European states the have closed the Balkans route for refugees heading northwards to Germany and prosperous northern Europe.

Ms Merkel has criticised their decision, but Bavarian daily Nuernberger Nachrichten noted that "she is benefiting more than anyone from the border closures that she is criticising".

"After this election, Ms Merkel must more than ever, give an explanation."