BERLIN (Reuters) - A former cabinet minister and member of Angela Merkel's conservative bloc blamed Germany's chancellor on Sunday for steering a course that has strengthened the eurosceptic AfD party and a new anti-immigrant grass-roots movement.
In rare direct criticism of Merkel, Hans-Peter Friedrich, forced to resign as agriculture minister in February over leaked information, said Merkel made a "disastrous mistake" by wooing center-left voters and ignoring those on the right.
Friedrich said voters who had joined the AfD, which has won seats in three state assemblies in Germany after shifting its focus from euroscepticism to concerns about immigration in the last year, had felt abandoned by the conservative bloc.
"If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have said we will clear them out by taking away their issues. But Mrs Merkel has decided instead to take away issues from the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens," Friedrich told Der Spiegel.
"This is successful in the short term, as the polls show, but in the long run it is a disastrous mistake which can lead to the division and weakening of the conservative camp," he said.
Merkel's deal last year to share power with the center-left SPD worried some on the right of her party who feared she would move too far left, and Friedrich pointed to SPD initiated policies such as the introduction of a minimum wage.
He also said Merkel was partly responsible for the rise of PEGIDA, or the "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West" movement with its weekly marches in the eastern city of Dresden which have shocked many Germans.
With net immigration in Germany at its highest level in two decades, a poll this month showed that a majority of Germans think Merkel's government is paying too little attention to concerns about immigration and asylum seekers.
"Such opposition comes about if a not insignificant part of society has the feeling that it is not represented by the federal parties or at least that it no longer has a relevant vote. If the CDU does not recognize that, the CSU must open its eyes for it," he said.
Some other members of Friedrich's Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), which shares power with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the SPD, echoed his criticism.
A group of CSU members who have formed the "conservative awakening", initiative declared opposition to Merkel, whose approval ratings are undiminished after nine years in office.
"People feel left alone by the CDU, that is Merkel's fault," the initiative's David Bendels told Handelsblatt Online, saying the AfD and PEGIDA were "home-made problems by Merkel" and that their Bavarian party must not go the same way as the CDU.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Alison Williams)