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Migrant-friendly Merkel risks losses in regional vote

Angela Merkel migrant-friendly policies face a first major test this weekend, with voters expected to punish the German Chancellor and her party for their decision to allow thousands of migrants to enter Germany.

State elections in three key states will be a barometer of public opinion and a clear indication of much Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party will be affected by her moral stance over the thousands of migrants that have headed north through Europe to reach Germany in search of a better life.

An estimated one million migrants arrived in Germany in 2015, according to unofficial figures.

While public opinion in Germany was generally sympathetic towards refugees from Syria, sentiment soured following a spate of sexual assaults allegedly carried out by immigrants in Cologne on New Year's Eve.

Following the assaults, Merkel proposed tougher laws that would make it easier to deport migrants but the damage had been done and many members of the public were left wondering whether the chancellor has a long-term plan on integrating the newcomers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As public sentiment has changed, the right-wing anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has seen as dramatic rise in support from conservative voters (Merkel's traditional voter base), most recently evident in municipal elections in the central state of Hesse last weekend where the AfD won 13.2 percent of the vote, putting it in third position.

Although still far behind the 28.2 percent claimed by Merkel's party, the AfD had polled much stronger than expected which doesn't bode well for Merkel ahead of the state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Palatinate on Sunday. Polls published by Bild on Monday showed a slide in support for Merkel's CDU and predicted gains for the AfD across the three states which represent 12 million voters.

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This week voters will have been keeping close tabs on Merkel's role in the latest negotiations with Turkey over the admittance of migrants into the EU. Earlier this week it was decided that Turkey would take back migrants unlikely to gain EU asylum and refugees arriving on the continent from Syria. In return, the EU would have to accept another Syrian refugee directly from a Turkish refugee camp.

The idea of the proposal is to reduce the incentives for refugees and migrants to cross the Turkey/EU border or sea to enter the EU. Another part of the agreement was to allow Turkish citizens to travel to Schengen countries without a visa, a plan that is controversial as it will allow 77 million Turkish citizens easy access to Europe.

Carsten Nickel, senior vice president of Teneo Intelligence, said in a note earlier this week that if the tentative nature of the Turkey deal prevents a CDU stabilization before the Sunday vote, "Merkel will come under increasing pressure from within her own party."

"Yet the combination of low migrant arrivals following the Austrian border closures and Merkel's progress towards a potentially promising Turkey deal could turn into crucial assets for the chancellor this coming summer," he said.

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