By Noah Barkin
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany toughened its rhetoric on Wednesday in response to an accelerating influx of asylum seekers, pledging to step up deportations of migrants and accusing its neighbor Austria of trying to push refugees over their common border after dark.
The sharper tone from Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere came as a new poll showed support for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives slumping to a three-year low over her handling of the refugee crisis.
She has been pummeled by her conservative allies in Bavaria, the southern state where most migrants are entering Germany from Austria, for refusing to commit to measures to stem the tide.
On Wednesday, Germany's top-selling newspaper Bild reported that Horst Seehofer, the premier of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), was considering pulling his party's three ministers out of Merkel's cabinet in Berlin in protest at her policies.
Although Seehofer has delivered a series of ultimatums in recent weeks that he has not followed through on, the report underscored how serious tensions within the federal government have become as hundreds of thousands of migrants, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, stream into Germany.
Merkel has argued that the crisis can only be solved by tackling its root causes: the war in Syria and poor conditions for refugees in countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
In the face of rising criticism and declining poll numbers, she has stuck doggedly to her mantra "we can do this". But the tougher rhetoric on Wednesday pointed to a shift in tone that may be aimed at containing the political damage.
De Maiziere acknowledged at a news conference in Berlin that the influx had accelerated strongly in recent days due to a backlog of migrants traveling through the Balkans.
"I expect that in the coming weeks, the number of deportations and of voluntary departures will rise significantly," he said.
"OUT OF ORDER"
He described a sharp rise in the number of migrants coming from Afghanistan as "unacceptable" and said talks had been held with the government in Kabul to put a halt to it, saying Afghans should "stay in their country".
However his most pointed rhetoric was reserved for Austria, whose recent handling of refugees he called "out of order".
"We observed that refugees, without warning and after dark, were being driven to the German border without any provisions or forethought. There were intensive contacts. Austria agreed yesterday to return to an orderly process. I expect this to occur immediately," de Maiziere said.
For its part, Austria on Wednesday outlined plans to build barriers including a fence at a busy crossing on its southern border with Slovenia to slow the influx of transiting migrants.
De Maiziere's cabinet colleague, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, speaking at a separate event, said the stream of migrants could not be "limitless". He also defended Merkel's decision in early September to allow migrants camped out in Hungary through to Germany, calling this an emergency measure.
In another positive sign for Merkel, her broad coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), signaled they might be ready to drop their opposition to so-called "transit zones" along the border, which would allow German authorities to register and deport migrants more quickly.
Although Merkel's conservatives have been sinking in the polls, the center-left SPD has failed to benefit much. Still, the SPD sees the crisis as a political opportunity because it has damaged Merkel, who until recently had seemed destined to cruise to a fourth term in 2017.
In a sign of their newfound confidence, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, who serves as economy minister and vice chancellor in Merkel's government, told Stern magazine on Wednesday that he had set his sights on becoming chancellor himself.
The new poll from Forsa showed Merkel's conservatives dipping two points to 36 percent, their lowest level in three years, compared to 24 percent for the SPD. However, some 46 percent of those surveyed said they preferred Merkel as chancellor, compared to just 16 percent who supported Gabriel.
(Reporting by Noah Barkin, Caroline Copley, Matthias Sobolewski; Editing by Mark Heinrich)