German Chancellor Angela Merkel took responsibility for her party’s election defeat in the German state where she has her political base, but strongly defended her migrant policy on Monday even as she vowed to win back voters’ trust.

A year before an expected national election, a nationalist, anti-immigration party’s second-place finish Sunday ahead of Merkel’s conservatives was a jolt that will likely increase tensions in Germany’s governing coalition. However, the result didn’t pose any immediate threat to Merkel, 62, Germany’s leader since 2005.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union finished third in the election for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s state legislature, behind the three-year-old Alternative for Germany, or AfD. It was held exactly a year after she decided to let in migrants stuck in Hungary, triggering the peak of last year’s influx. Merkel conceded the outcome was “almost entirely about federal political issues.”

The center-left Social Democrats, Merkel’s partners in Germany’s national government, remained the strongest party in Mecklenburg. They have led the regional government for a decade with the CDU as junior partner, a coalition they can continue if they choose.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel today said 'we still have a lot to do to regain our (party's) confidence

The region is sparsely populated, but the vote was symbolically significant because Merkel’s parliamentary constituency is there. It was the first of five regional ballots before a national election a year away. The next is Sept. 18 in Berlin, where local issues are likely to feature more strongly.

Mecklenburg is home to few foreigners, but Merkel acknowledged that migrant policy was a dominant theme.

New arrivals have slowed drastically after more than 1 million people were registered as asylum-seekers in 2015, and asylum policies have been tightened. Still, New Year’s Eve robberies and sexual assaults blamed largely on foreigners, and two attacks in July carried out by asylum-seekers and claimed by the Islamic State group, have fed tensions.

“We must all consider how we can now win back trust, me first and foremost,” Merkel told reporters on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in China.

“I am the party leader, I am the chancellor — you can’t separate those in people’s eyes, so I am of course responsible too” for the result, Merkel said. “However, I believe the decisions that have been made were right, and now we must continue working.”

She added that “the issue of integration will play a huge role in that, and the question of the repatriation of refugees who have no residence permit here.”

Merkel’s critics have faulted her for sticking to her mantra that “we will manage” the refugee crisis. Sunday’s result may make it tougher to smooth over a dispute with the Christian Social Union, her conservative Union bloc’s Bavarian arm, which criticized her welcoming approach from the start and wants an annual migrant cap.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer, Bavaria’s governor, told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that the situation for the conservatives is “highly threatening.” He was quoted as complaining that his “repeated demand for a change of course” on migrant policy hadn’t been heeded and said Sunday’s “disastrous” result was a consequence.

Meanwhile, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrats’ leader and a likely challenger to Merkel next year, underlined his party’s increasing distance from the chancellor as it eyes the national election. He accused her conservatives of being too slow to respond to the migrant crisis.

“We have wasted a great deal of time with unnecessary arguments,” he said, arguing that Merkel had been guilty of “simply repeating ‘we will manage it’ without doing it as well.”

Although Merkel already adjusted migrant policies over the past year, she can’t make a clean break from her overall approach because “that wouldn’t be credible,” political science professor Klaus Schroeder told N24 television. “So the quarrels between the CDU and CSU will continue, and the Social Democrats will turn even more strongly against the Union to have a chance in the national election campaign.”

Merkel’s bloc leads national polls, although her own popularity ratings have dropped from stellar to respectable. She hasn’t yet declared whether she will seek a fourth term next year, but there’s no obvious alternative.

AfD polls between 11 and 14 percent nationally and appears strongest in the ex-communist east.

It basked Monday in its latest success. Leader Frauke Petry attacked Merkel’s party for saying that “they haven’t done anything wrong. They just didn’t explain their policies.”

“This ignorance is exemplary,” she said. “It is not just ignorance. What we see here is the continuing arrogance of power.”

Petry, whose party has no prospect of going into government in the foreseeable future, complained that its rivals “still think they can label AfD as an undemocratic party.”

On Sunday, AfD won support from across the spectrum to take 20.8 percent of votes, its second-best result yet. That helped push the far-right National Democratic Party out of its last state legislature.

Germany’s Central Council of Jews voiced satisfaction at that development, but also concern about AfD.

AfD “was unfortunately successful with its tactic of feeding prejudice against minorities and offering slogans instead of solutions,” said the council’s head, Josef Schuster.

“Apparently it is not clear to many voters, or they accept this, that AfD doesn’t distance itself clearly from the far-right spectrum either in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania or nationally.”


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The Sunday contest was viewed by many as a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policy, and her party suffered a significant defeat on her home turf.
Merkel admitted Monday that decisions on immigration played a role in the result, but insisted that she has made the right ones.
Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, defeated the Christian Democratic Union — Merkel’s party — in local elections in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, coming in second behind the Social Democratic Party, according to exit polls.
AfD was only formally founded in April 2013, yet it defeated the CDU in the German chancellor’s home state.
Although AfD has performed strongly in several other regional elections, most notably coming in second with 24% of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt in March, it’s an unprecedented moment in modern German politics that the CDU is set to finish behind a party so far to its right on most issues.
The preliminary results indicate the Social Democratic Party won 30.6%, Alternative für Deutschland took 20.8% and the Christian Democratic Union got 19%.
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A referendum on refugees

In an interview with CNN Monday, AfD party leader Frauke Petry interpreted the party’s success in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern as a personal defeat for Merkel.
Petry suggested that with her party gaining across the country, the Christian Democratic Union is “falling apart” and said it’s time for Germany to close its borders.
“We see the political climate changes towards AfD and against the established parties, especially the Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel’s party — 21 percent in the northeast of Germany is an absolutely brilliant result,” Petry told CNN.
“The CDU is falling apart, but not only up there,” she added. “We see that in many regions of Germany where the CDU bases, the party bases, don’t agree with Merkel’s policy anymore.
“We want that the German government closes German borders to illegal migration… We don’t want a new border in Germany. But we need controlled borders. We need a change of legislation on a German level, but also an EU level, to avoid illegal migration.”
Merkel has stood firm on Germany’s position of accepting nearly all asylum seekers found to be legitimate refugees. Germany took in more than 1 million refugees in 2015, making it the most open country in Europe to asylum seekers.

Merkel admits there’s a lot to do

Responding to the preliminary results from the weekend vote, Merkel — who is in China at the G20 summit — told reporters she was “dissatisfied with the outcome of the elections.”
She admitted that “many people do not have our confidence regarding the refugee question.”
After a series of terrorist attacks in July, Merkel refused to back down on her immigration policy, which she has termed a moral responsibility, especially to people fleeing the horror of civil war in Syria.
Monday the Chancellor insisted the decisions made on how to handle the refugee crises were correct, but acknowledged: “We still have to do a lot to regain our (party’s) confidence.”

Not a disaster, but of concern

Experts say the results don’t mean there’s a looming disaster for Merkel in next year’s election if she chooses to run — the AfD would likely have trouble forming a coalition with more traditional political parties — but they do signal some concerns for Merkel.
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Politico’s senior European Union correspondent, Ryan Heath, said analysts believe Merkel still has an overwhelming likelihood of winning the national elections in 2017. However, these predictions are based largely on the national weakness of the Social Democrats, currently the junior partner in the coalition government.

Rise of the right

Formally founded in April 2013, AfD was set up by academics disgruntled by Merkel’s eurozone crisis management — most notably the Greek bailouts. However, AfD mutated into a more nationalist party that strongly opposed rising immigration levels — particularly of people from Muslim countries.
Heath noted that the growing strength of the populist, anti-immigrant AfD mirrored similar parties in France, Poland and Hungary as well the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee in the United States.
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