Merkel puts ally in charge of refugee crisis as support wanes

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 07, 2015 10:58 AM

By Madeline Chambers

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel installed one of her most trusted allies on Wednesday to oversee her government's handling of the refugee crisis as a new poll showed support for her conservative bloc slipping to a four-month low.

Former environment minister and Merkel's current chief of staff Peter Altmaier, a strong communicator, has taken over political coordination of the crisis, a move widely seen as a blow to Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

De Maiziere has come under fire for reacting passively to the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees but will continue to deal with operational issues.

German authorities are struggling to cope with up to 10,000 daily arrivals. Many are refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. The government expects 800,000 or more people to arrive this year and some reports have said the total could rise to as much as 1.5 million, nearly two percent of the population.

Germany received 43,071 applications for asylum last month, a 126 percent rise from a year ago, said the interior ministry, and the number of initial registrations by people arriving in the country rose to 164,000 in September.

However, the ministry did not put a number on the total number of migrants who arrived last month. Estimates are that it reached up to 280,000, far more than arrived all of last year.

Earlier, a Forsa poll showed support for Merkel's conservatives slipping to 39 percent, down one percentage point from last week and the lowest reading since May. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has urged a tougher stance toward migrants, gained two points, hitting 7 percent for the first time this year.

Forsa chief Manfred Guellner said Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) were losing most support in eastern Germany and in Bavaria, the entry point for most refugees. Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) was also down sharply.

Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer warned on Wednesday that he would introduce "emergency measures" if the government does not limit the influx, possibly sending refugees straight to other German states and setting up transit zones.

Merkel's appointment of Altmaier, a gregarious mountain of a man who served as parliamentary whip for her conservatives and admits to a penchant for dumplings stuffed with liver sausage, has been interpreted by some German media as a slap in the face of the reserved de Maiziere, who was once seen as a possible successor to Merkel.

However, government spokesman Georg Streiter dismissed speculation that de Maiziere had been stripped of some of his power. "That is rubbish," he told reporters.

Merkel, who has been chancellor for almost 10 years, is seeing an erosion of her own support due to her handling of the crisis. The poll showed a 2 point dip in her popularity to 47 percent, her lowest this year.

In particular, critics blame her for throwing open Germany's borders to Syrian refugees fleeing war.

Der Spiegel reported that some 34 members of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had written to Merkel saying the open borders policy conformed to neither European nor German law and did not fit in with the CDU's program either.

But in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Merkel said Germany and Europe must work together to tackle the crisis, saying it posed a test of historic proportions. She showed little sign of changing tack and introducing the limits that some of her most senior ministers have called for.

"These people must be given a home free of fear and terror," she said. "This is a global task".

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Noah Barkin)