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Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, recently enjoyed a brief break from relentless questioning about her contentious refugee policy.
Instead, Europe’s most powerful leader was quizzed on traffic jams, theatre financing, and the wholesale price of false teeth at a gathering of business people in the rural region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which is holding regional elections on September 4.
For the 62-year-old chancellor, this sort of questioning at a campaign event was probably comforting: having represented the region’s Stralsund constituency since German reunification in 1990, she is familiar with its people and its problems. “This is her homeland,” says Martin Koschkar, a political researcher at the University of Rostock, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern’s largest city.
But the respite was short lived. Even though Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is far removed from the big cities where Germany’s migrants are concentrated, Ms Merkel’s decision to take in more than 1m mainly Muslim migrants since early 2015 is “issue number one” ahead of the regional elections, says Lorenz Caffier, the region’s interior minister and lead candidate for Ms Merkel’s CDU. “The question is asked on every street corner.”
It is also propelling the rise of the Alternative for Germany party, which is campaigning on an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and anti-Merkel platform. Opinion polls show the AfD, which is running in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern for the first time, with 19 per cent support. That is only a few percentage points short of the ruling Social Democrats’ 24 per cent and their CDU coalition partner’s 23 per cent.
A rural corner of the former communist East Germany best known for its unspoilt lakes and beaches, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is only slowly recovering from the economic shocks of German reunification. Until last year, depopulation was its biggest demographic concern.
But on its streets, the atmosphere has been transformed by the arrival of refugees. Christian Butzki, deputy mayor of Neustrelitz, the elegant tourist town where Ms Merkel was speaking, says there are no difficulties with asylum seekers settled locally. “But there is a general feeling of insecurity. There is concern about possible cultural changes . . . Also some prejudiced people say, ‘The refugees are only here for our money’.”
The mood has been further charged by this summer’s two terror attacks, carried out by refugees linked to the militant group Islamic State: an axe attack by an Afghan teenager who wounded five people on a train; and a suicide bombing by a 27-year-old Syrian who blew himself up outside a wine bar, injuring 15 people.
A young German-Iranian also killed himself and nine others in a mass shooting in Munich. Although he had no Islamist links, his rampage increased the sense of insecurity and, for some, feelings that people of foreign origin bring trouble. “The ratcatchers from the AfD talk about refugees and crime, and people listen to them,” says a warden working at the imposing 18th century church in Neustrelitz’s cobbled market place.
Ms Merkel’s government has responded by pledging to boost police numbers and crack down on refugees suspected of terrorist sympathies. Her coalition government is also calling for a partial burka ban to encourage Muslim integration.
But in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the government’s response has failed to calm worried voters who, like other residents of the former East Germany, have been more open to the populist call of the AfD than west Germans.
Ms Merkel, who grew up close by in the Brandenburg region, is trying to win them back with logic rather than rhetoric. Campaigning in the region, she admits that extremists are recruiting among refugees. But she argues that Islamist terrorism and immigration are separate issues: not least because Germany itself produced homegrown terrorists who went to fight in the Middle East.
But the AfD is optimistic about its electoral chances. It achieved its best regional result so far in March, in the eastern region of Saxony Anhalt, where it turned a 19 per cent opinion poll forecast into winning nearly a quarter of the votes on election day. Leif-Erik Holm, the AfD’s lead candidate, is looking for similar late gains in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. A smooth-talking former radio disc jockey, the 46-year-old knows how to stir the crowd. “Merkel must go,” he says repeatedly on the stump.
In Germany’s complex multi-party politics, matching Saxony Anhalt’s 24 per cent could put the AfD in the top spot for the first time in a regional vote. For established political leaders, the AfD beating both the SPD and the CDU, the two parties which have dominated German politics since the second world war, would be a political embarrassment. For Ms Merkel, to see it happen in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where she has such deep roots, it would be a personal affront.