Germany’s Merkel re-elected as conservative party leader

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Chancellor Angela Merkel won a new two-year term Tuesday as the leader of Germany’s main conservative party, gaining solid backing after stressing her determination to prevent a repeat of last year’s huge migrant influx.

Merkel, who ran unopposed, won 89.5 percent of delegates’ votes at a congress of her Christian Democratic Union in the western city of Essen. That was short of the 96.7 percent she won two years ago, but still a strong mandate as she prepares to seek a fourth term as chancellor in next year’s German election.

The vote came after a speech in which she struck a decidedly conservative note, telling members that she wants to stem the influx of migrants and ban face-covering veils where possible.

Germany saw about 890,000 asylum-seekers arrive last year. Many came after Merkel decided in September 2015 to let in migrants who were stuck in Hungary. The numbers have since declined sharply, but Merkel’s “we will cope” approach to the migrant crisis has provoked discord within the CDU, which has seen a string of poor state election results this year.

“A situation like the one in the late summer of 2015 cannot, should not and must not be repeated,” Merkel told delegates.

While Merkel insists that Germany will continue to take in people who genuinely need of protection, her government has moved to toughen asylum rules and declare several countries “safe” — meaning people from there can’t expect to get refuge.

Merkel was also a driving force behind an agreement between the European Union and Turkey in March to stem the flow of migrants.

Polls show a solid lead for the conservatives, although their support is still short of the 41.5 percent they won in Germany’s 2013 election. They face new competition from the upstart nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which has thrived by attacking Merkel’s migrant policies.

“The 2017 election will be more difficult than any election before, at least since German reunification,” Merkel said, citing the “strong polarization of our society.”

Merkel told delegates that “parallel societies” won’t be tolerated and advocated banning the wearing of full-face veils used by some Muslim women where that’s possible. But she also hit out at anti-migrant and anti-government protesters who chant “We are the people!” or post hate messages on social media.

“Who the people are … is something that we will all determine, not just a few, however loud they may be,” she declared.

The EU’s longest-serving head of government has often said her aim is for Europe to emerge stronger from crises such as the debt troubles that afflicted the common euro currency.

Merkel said she still believes in that — but “we must in this situation … first do everything so that Europe doesn’t emerge even weaker from the crises than when it went in.”

That “sounds modest, but let’s not deceive ourselves, it is not,” Merkel said, citing conservative icon and ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s maxim that European stability shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Aside from unhappiness about her migrant policy, some party members are grumbling about what’s perceived as a drift to the left during her 11 years as chancellor.

“We have thrown a lot of Christian Democratic principles overboard,” said Eugen Abler, a delegate from the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, whose complaints included what he called “the downplaying of Islamization.”

“The result: We are winning few voters on the left and we are losing a lot on the right,” he added.

Merkel said that tough times demand tough decisions.

“I have asked a lot of you because the times have asked a lot of us — I am well aware of that,” she told her party. “And I cannot promise you that there will be fewer demands in the future, because we must do what the times demand of us.”

Still, she stressed Tuesday that the conservatives will rule out tax increases for the next four years.

Burqa ban

Merkel has also called for a burqa ban in Germany and said the refugee crisis “must never be repeated” while making her pitch for a fourth term as Chancellor.

Addressing her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party,  Merkel said she would support a nationwide prohibition on Islamic veils covering the face.

“The full-face veil is not acceptable in our country,” she told delegates in Essen, sparking rapturous applause. “It should be banned, wherever it is legally possible.”

Thomas de Maizière, the German interior minister and one of Merkel’s closest allies in the CDU, proposed a partial burqa ban in August and called the veils “contrary to integration”.

He said the law would apply in “places where it is necessary for our society’s coexistence” including government offices, schools and universities, courtrooms as well as demonstrations.

Dutch MPs voted for a similar prohibition in the Netherlands last month, covering public transport, education, healthcare and government buildings and punishing any infractions with fines.

Support for bans on full-face veils has been growing across Europe since France became the first country to implement such a law in 2011, followed by countries including Belgium, Bulgaria and parts of Switzerland.

Merkel’s popularity has been severely dented by growing anti-migrant sentiment in Germany following the arrival of around 1 million asylum seekers in the continuing refugee crisis.

Merkel has been widely criticised for her decision to open the borders in September 2015, with opponents blaming the policy for mass sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and two terror attacks by Isis supporters.

She has repeatedly refused to reverse the policy amid a string of regional election defeats for her CDU party but struck a new tone on Tuesday.

“A situation like the one in the late summer of 2015 cannot, should not and must not be repeated,” she said. “That was and is our, and my, declared political aim.”

While Merkel has continued to insist that Germany will take in people in genuine need of protection, her government has moved to toughen asylum rules and declare several countries ”safe“ – meaning people from there cannot expect to receive protection in Germany.

She was also a driving force behind an agreement between the EU and Turkey earlier this year aiming to stop crossings over the Aegean Sea by detaining migrants in Greece under the threat of deportation.

As well as discord over her policy on refugees, members of the CDU have also been unhappy about a perceived shift to the left during her 11 years as Chancellor.

Polls show a solid lead for the party, though their support is well short of the 41.5 per cent they won in Germany’s 2013 election.