BERLIN — Her open-door policy for refugees has sparked anger across the Continent and threatened her political standing at home, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel is closing out a turbulent year displaying the same equanimity and maneuvering skills that have marked her decade in power.
Ms. Merkel, 61, has tamped down — at least for now — the outrage and a flight of support from her Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, among conservative voters who fear that the approximately 1 million refugees arriving in Europe’s largest economy this year might include terrorists like those who staged mass shootings in Paris last month.
But the unpopular policy announced in August still threatens to erode support for Germany’s leading conservative parties in the run-up to three important state elections in mid-March and two more in the fall, when the government’s base supporters could make their dissatisfaction heard.
The political climate has set the stage for a busy winter as Ms. Merkel struggles to accommodate the refugees and convince her countrymen of the fundamental morality of accepting the desperate visitors. As during much of her tenure, the chancellor appears far more appreciated and respected beyond Germany’s borders than she is within them: She was picked as Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2015 — angering Donald Trump in the process — and ranked second on Forbes’ Most Powerful People list — behind Russian President Vladimir Putin but ahead of President Obama and Pope Francis.
She is also not backing down from a fight as the Continent struggles to deal with the crush of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other crisis spots. Many in Europe say her welcoming attitude has only worsened the problem.
“This is a historic test for Europe,” Ms. Merkel said in a speech last week at the CDU’s annual conference, where she also managed to win back support among outraged and concerned party members. “We will do our bit to make sure this happens. I can say that because it’s a part of the identity of our country to do great things.”
Observers say this is classic Merkel, a fine balance of principle and improvisation that has allowed her to dominate Germany and emerge as the “Queen of Europe” during her decade in power in Berlin.
“What she and her government are counting on is getting the situation under control, which, if you think about time, would have to be in the next year or so,” said Tony Czuczka, co-author of “Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis.” “That’s a strategy she’s pursuing in my mind to try to get voter support back up to what it was before this summer.”
But, tempering her lofty rhetoric, Ms. Merkel also has hewed to a conservative line with a tougher refugee policy and demands that refugees follow German laws and adapt to German customs.
“Multiculturalism leads to parallel societies and therefore remains a lie,” she said at the conference.
She also said she would find measures to stem the influx of migrants. “We want and we will reduce the number of refugees noticeably.”
Humboldt University political scientist Herfried Munkler said the balancing act was a hallmark of Ms. Merkel’s tenure. She has repeatedly overcome dilemmas that would have sunk other politicians by embracing policies that often diverge from one another and besting rivals who consistently underestimate her.
“The secret to Merkel’s weathering crises is her flexibility,” said Mr. Munkler. “It is clever in many respects and has led to a long chancellorship, but in principle it excludes long-term strategic plans.”
In 2006, as the German economy was strengthening but still on a downward trend, she pushed through unpopular spending cuts and tax hikes that put the country in a strong relative position when the worldwide financial crisis hit less than two years later. In 2010, she used Germany’s place at the center of the eurozone to weather the currency bloc’s troubles, demonstrating her willingness to use her power for German ends in the process. In a remarkable tightrope act, she helped force unpopular austerity policies on unwilling fellow EU countries that had run up huge debts while convincing reluctant Germans to support the bailouts for those same struggling countries.
“She’s fiscally conservative because that’s what Germans like,” said Mr. Czuczka. “At the same time, she’s pushing the nation a bit because she has a personal view of what’s humanitarian and what our duties as human beings are.”
East German upbringing
Mr. Czuczka sees the chancellor’s well-documented upbringing as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in atheistic, communist East Germany as crucial to her bid to reconcile those European humanitarian impulses with German voters’ concerns about 1 million unemployed Muslims destabilizing the country.
“Other factors come into play in the refugee crisis, including potentially her religious background,” said Mr. Czuczka. “That is one wellspring of this notion she’s presenting to Germans right now that the refugee crisis is an opportunity for Germany more than a burden, and also a chance for the country to get out of its comfort zone, if you like, including economically.”
In the short term, Ms. Merkel’s mix of hard and soft approaches appears to be working.
Polls show that support for the CDU and its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union, stands at 38 percent, 3 points higher than the lows posted after she announced that Germany would accept unlimited refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and other crises in the Middle East.
But as part of the balancing act, the government also announced this week that it was stepping up the deportations of failed asylum-seekers, The Associated Press reported. Newly released figures show that the number of deportations almost doubled this year from 2014, according to the AP report.
Still, the CDU’s popularity has been falling in the past year, with a far-right, anti-immigrant, Euro-skeptic party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, benefiting the most from the CDU’s slump in the polls.
INSA/YouGov’s latest poll gave the AfD 10 percent of the vote. That is half a percentage point less than after the Paris attacks Nov. 13, when INSA/YouGov found that the AfD would be the third-largest party in Germany after Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, who serve in a “grand coalition” government with the center-left Social Democrats, if an election were held at that time.
Even more worrisome for many has been the success of a new anti-Muslim movement known by its German acronym PEGIDA, which has staged large, often boisterous demonstrations in many former East German cities.
Whether or not the CDU can expand its support and lure conservatives back from the AfD will be Ms. Merkel’s critical test for the news, say analysts who note that the CDU/CSU alliance traditionally has been able to hold more right-wing groups at bay.
Germany “a country in which antipathy towards democracy is gradually increasing while xenophobia is growing rapidly,” the respected German publication Der Spiegel said in a long analysis published this week. “And it is a country where incidents of right-wing violence are on the rise and refugee hostels are set on fire almost daily.”
Ms. Merkel’s “political fate will partly be decided by how she chooses to deal with the New Right,” the analysis concluded.
Most here say it is likely, given her track record of weathering crises during her decade in office, that the chancellor will put it off once again.
“Merkel’s background has given her stamina and a will to succeed and ambition,” Mr. Czuczka said. “That doesn’t, however, come out in a very obvious way, which is why she’s so often been underestimated.”
Still, Ankatrine Holz, a 28-year-old Berliner, said she liked Ms. Merkel but felt the open-door policy was a catastrophe for Germany, letting in refugees who can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, assimilate into German society easily.
“I have mixed feelings about her,” said Ms. Holz, who declined to share her party affiliation. “She didn’t think through the refugee situation, and now we have all of these people here that she can’t help.”