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German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to admit more than a million migrants and refugees into the country has come to define this year’s election. While Merkel is the leading candidate for what would be her fourth term, critics say her humanitarian policies might have opened a window for far-right, populist politics to gain a seat in Parliament for the first time since World War II. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.
Pinneberg, a suburb of Hamburg in Northwestern Germany, is a "bellwether" town, having voted for the winning party in every German national election since 1953.
Michael von Abercron is a candidate for Pinneberg's seat in Parliament for the Christian Democratic Union, the center-right party headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel. It's riding a wave of economic prosperity in Germany and a popular feeling that Merkel offers stability in an uncertain world.
DR. MICHAEL VON ABERCRON:
My party is in front now. I'm sure the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will win this election.
Merkel manages the biggest economy in Europe. With a budget surplus for five straight years and record low unemployment. A recent poll found 64 percent of German voters approve of the job she's doing. Talking to people on the subway in Germany's capital, Berlin, we found plenty of support for the Chancellor.
WOMAN ON SUBWAY:
She has been good for Germans. I like her very much. Over the course of the years, I think it's very good what she has done.
MAN ON SUBWAY:
She's Conservative, but she often made the right choices, I think.
For the country in general, I think she made the right choices.
Her choice, in 2015, to admit more than a million migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa has defined this election.
She thought at this particular time it was a humanitarian responsibility.
Reuters' Berlin correspondent Andreas Rinke has covered Merkel since she was first elected Chancellor in 2005 and has written the book, "The Merkel Lexikon." He says Merkel wanted to preserve the European Union principle of open borders, which lets 400 million citizens of 26 countries travel freely across borders. An agreement signed in "Schangen," Luxembourg in 1985. ANDREAS RINKE: She was convinced that if she starts building, not a wall, but preventing people from crossing from Austria into Germany that the whole Schengen area would collapse. And the Schengen area together with the Euro is one of the two pillars of the European integration.
That must have been a big risk for her as a politician?
it was at that time, but she thought that sometimes you have to take risks as a politician.
Leading the charge against Merkel's handling of the refugee flow has been the populist far right party, Alternative for Germany, or AFD, founded only in 2013. Its campaign posters are distinctly-anti-immigrant. One depicts what looks like vultures sitting on a gate and says: "A social state needs boundaries!" Another shows a pregnant white woman and says,"New Germans? We must make them ourselves." Earlier this month, party co-founder Alexander Gauland said Germans "should be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars," including the Nazi era. After riding a refugee backlash to surge in popularity, support for the party faded, as was the case with anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties in the Netherlands and France earlier this year.
The AfD. How do you feel about that party?
I'm absolutely against the right wing. We have a history that should not repeat itself. I'm German, and I'm proud to be a German, but I don't agree with the party's program.
In the German system, people don't vote directly for Chancellor. If Merkel's party retains a majority in the Bundestag, the German Parliament, she'll remain the nation's Head of State. Merkel's main rival for Chancellor is the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, Martin Schulz. The party that was in power before Merkel took office. Schulz is campaigning on a platform that includes free education, more affordable rent, and equal pay for women.
"I'm making it very clear to you, it will be one of the first decisions of the social democratic-run government of Germany. The same wages for the same work at the same space for men and women, and we won't rest until we achieve it!"
Also a member of the Social Democratic Party, Tim Renner is a candidate for Parliament in Berlin. He blames Merkel for the rise of the right by not tackling the immigration crisis sooner.
Due to the fact that Merkel did it the way she did it, she opened up pretty much space for the AfD.
So she's partially responsible for the rise of populist right wing politics in Germany? TIM RENNER: Not willingly but unwillingly she helped them to grow. Because there was for sure a situation due to the fact she didn't react beforehand, you had got the feeling it was out of control, and that was a momentum that AfD used for themselves, big way.
Germany has spent more than 30 billion dollars on the recent refugees, giving them housing subsidies and monthly stipends for expenses. In Pinneberg, we met some Syrian migrants getting help at a community center. This family, from Aleppo, was trying out a new bike. They've been in Germany six months and have learned to speak some German.
Do you like living here in Germany?
Yes, for sure
The family still must apply for asylum to stay legally. But Merkel has refused refugees the right to bring over other family members. Frustrated, and with difficulties assimilating, around 200-thousand of the new arrivals have left Germany.
I think the main issue is that they left their wife and children in their countries. So most of them, the men went first in the expectation they could take their families afterwards. This doesn't work.
The policy is scheduled for review in the coming months. In a recent debate, Merkel promised voters she'd continue it.
She denies the rights of the people just to keep the far right calm and to win the election.
While polls predict a win for Merkel, and second place for Schulz, all eyes are on third place and the AfD. It's been polling around 10 percent, and any party that wins 5 percent of the vote is eligible for seats in the German Parliament. This is the first time a far right party might actually enter Parliament since World War Two. What does this say about this time in history for Germany?
Well, it says that we are like other countries as well, because more or less all European countries have seen this influx of right wing parties. But I think it's important to understand for the German election that regardless of how many percentage points they get, 5 percent, 8 or 15, they won't be part of any German government. It's a political consensus among all the other parties that you don't form a coalition with the AfD.
Andreas Rinke says Merkel's case for a fourth term rests on her leadership of the European Union at a time when the U.K. is withdrawing from the E.U., and American leadership of the West is in doubt on issues ranging from battling climate change to standing up to Russia.
I noticed since I accompany her on her foreign trips, that in China, in the U.S., in the Gulf States, they all said, "You are the one responsible for the Euro. You are responsible for fixing Europe."
At 63, Merkel has worked with three very different American presidents. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.
With Bush, it was fairly close. She liked him. But this relationship got her a lot of problems. Because he was not very well seen in Germany, because of the Iraq war. A large part of the German population was against it, but she defended him. With Obama, it was a fairly rough relationship at the beginning. He was coming from a different political background. It took them a few years before they actually had a closer relationship, and in the end it was obviously one of admiration maybe on both sides.
What's her relationship like with Donald Trump?
He's in office now for half a year, slightly more. That's not a lot of time. But she sees it in very pragmatic terms. Maybe they come up with really close cooperation on some parts, and maybe they still disagree on other issues like climate change which is very important for her and other parts, but that doesn't mean that they can't form a personal relationship as different as they are.
While Merkel has differed with President Trump on the Iran nuclear deal, she's pledged to work together on expanding sanctions on North Korea and increasing German military spending for the NATO alliance, which she'll have a chance to do if she wins another four-year term.
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