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German Chancellor Angela Merkel launched her re-election bid on Tuesday by lashing out at populists trying to exploit fears over the recent influx of refugees, while also taking a tough stance on integration, including a ban on full-face veils.
Merkel outlined her strategy at an annual gathering of her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, which later voted to re-elect her party chairwoman with 89.5 percent of delegate votes.
Faced with a similar rise in populism that has consumed key allies abroad, Merkel vowed there would not be a repeat of last year’s record refugee influx.
She also stressed it was legitimate for Germany to expect newcomers to integrate, and this included rejection of of the niqab full-face veil.
“The full veil must be banned wherever it is legally possible,” she said.
Next year’s polls will “not be a walk in the park” as Germany is deeply polarised, noted the German leader, but urged the population to remain “sceptical about easy answers”.
“Rarely is it the easy answers that bring progress to our country,” she said, in a clear reference to the upstart anti-Islam and populist AfD, which Merkel had previously criticised as offering no solutions to problems.
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.
There have also 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 Matteo Renzi following a crushing referendum defeat championed by populists.
The CDU has suffered setbacks in five consecutive state polls as voters punished Merkel for her liberal refugee policy, with more than a million people seeking asylum in Germany since 2015.
Tackling the hot potato issue head-on, Merkel vowed that “a situation like that of summer 2015 can and must not repeat itself”.
She also stressed that each asylum request would be examined carefully, and “not all can and will stay” in Germany.
‘We are the people’
During the last party vote in 2014, Merkel garnered 96.7 percent of support and national media suggested that any score below 90 percent would be a slap in the face.
Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU secured a decisive win of 41.5 percent 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 September 2015 decision to let in refugees fleeing war in mostly-Muslim nations, a move that deeply polarised Europe’s biggest economy.
Although 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 party now enjoys around 12 percent support, while at the last general election it fell short of the five-percent threshold to ensure representation.
Hitting out directly at the populists as well as the xenophobic PEGIDA movement, she wrestled their “we are the people” rallying cry back, declaring to sustained applause: “We all get to determine who ‘the people’ are – not just a few, no matter how loud they are.”
Beyond domestic issues, Merkel also devoted a large part of her address to crises abroad as she noted that in 2016, “the world has not become stronger and more stable, but weaker and more unstable”.
She deplored the failure of the international community to alleviate the suffering in Syria’s besieged city of Aleppo, calling it a “disgrace”.
Merkel said she was shocked to see tens of thousands of Germans hitting the streets to demonstrate against free trade deals but virtually no protests against the bloodletting in Syria.
“There is something wrong there,” she said.
She also underlined the importance of holding the European Union together, saying Germany will do well “only when Europe does well too.”
In the face of the mountain of challenges, Merkel urged her delegates: “You must, you must, help me.”