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Merkel takes some blame for poor Berlin election performance

By FRANK JORDANS and KIRSTEN GRIESHABER | Associated Press Published: September 20, 2016 4:00 AM
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BERLIN -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel took partial responsibility for her party's worst-ever performance in a Berlin state election, acknowledging Monday that her government's policies at the national level were a factor.

Merkel pledged to work harder to address people's concerns, particularly on migrants.

Speaking alongside her Christian Democratic Union's mayoral candidate, Frank Henkel, Merkel called the second place finish with only 17.6 percent of the vote "bitter."

"I take responsibility as party leader and chancellor," she said.

Merkel also edged away from her oft-repeated mantra that "Germany will manage," telling reporters that while she stands by the sentiment, some voters had taken it as a provocation in view of the massive challenge that the country faces integrating hundreds of thousands of migrants.

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Merkel added that she's prepared to address voters' concerns about the unprecedented influx of migrants over the past year last year, but that if people simply don't want Muslim asylum-seekers because of their religion, then that would be counter to her Christian Democratic Party's basic principles, as well as Germany's.

"The CDU and I can't go along with that," she said.

Henkel added it was wrong to think that there had been no improvement over the past year. He noted that last fall up to 1,000 refugees were arriving in the capital each day, while that figure is down to between 25 and 30 now.

The Social Democrats (SPD) and Merkel's CDU emerged from the Berlin election as the two strongest parties, but both lost support to parties further to the left and right, meaning they won't be able to continue a coalition government.

The SPD received 21.6 percent, dropping 6.7 points, while the CDU received 17.6 percent, down 5.7 points.

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The anti-capitalist Left Party, a descendant of the former East German communists, gained 3.9 points to 15.6 percent. The Green Party received 15.2 percent, down by 2.4 percentage points.

The nationalist anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, known as AfD, easily entered its 10th state parliament with 14.2 percent of the vote.

The election also saw the Pirate Party voted out of state parliament, and the pro-business Free Democratic Party winning 6.7 percent of the vote -- enough to bring it back into parliament.

Voter participation rose to 66.9 percent from 60.2 percent in the last election, and the three-year-old AfD drew a lot of its support from new voters, though it was also able to attract supporters from the SPD, the CDU and other parties.

The vote comes two weeks after Merkel's CDU was beaten into third place in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania by the AfD, following a campaign in which the chancellor's decision to open Germany's borders to migrants last year featured prominently. Sunday's showing -- her party's worst ever in the capital -- will keep up the pressure on the chancellor a year ahead of general elections.

However, it was largely local issues that drove the vote in the city of 3.5 million. Among other things, disillusionment is high over the capital's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy and issues such as years of delays in opening its new airport.

Political analyst Hans Joachim Funke told The Associated Press that Sunday's result "weakens the Berlin CDU tremendously, but it doesn't weaken the position of the government, the grand coalition, on a federal level."

Nationally, Merkel's CDU is in a so-called grand coalition with its Bavaria-only sister-party CSU and the Social Democrats.

Merkel is widely expected to seek a fourth term in next year's election, though she still hasn't declared her hand. Three more state elections take place next spring.

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