KARLSRUHE, Germany — German Chancellor Angela Merkel will face her Christian Democratic Union Monday attempting to unite the fractious conservatives behind her welcome to the biggest influx of refugees since World War II.
The two-day CDU party congress in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe is aimed at finding a common approach to the asylum issue after weeks of damaging infighting and three months before key state elections.
Germany is expected to see around one million new asylum applications this year, more than any other country in the European Union. The new arrivals have put the popular Merkel under increasing pressure, particularly in her own camp.
More than 1,000 delegates will listen to Merkel defend her call for concrete measures to drive down the number of newcomers to Germany while keeping the door open to those fleeing war and terror.
"Of course we are going to have an intense debate about this," she told public television on late Sunday.
"All of Germany is debating these issues. But for me it is very important to say that we are going to live up to our humanitarian responsibility, and our responsibility to Europe."
Fortunately for Merkel, who has led the party for 15 years and Germany for a decade, she does not have to face a re-election vote this time as CDU chief.
If she did, analysts say she could suffer a similar fate to her vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the left-right "grand coalition" government. His party re-elected him on Friday with just 74-per cent support, a weak result seen as a "slap in the face" by local media.
However Merkel and the party leadership will put a policy statement on refugees to a vote after her speech Monday that observers say will serve as a kind of referendum on her leadership.
"Merkel has invested all of her political and personal capital in this issue," Berlin's daily Tagesspiegel wrote on Sunday. "She is in effect calling a no-confidence vote at the party congress."
Reducing refugee numbers
The chancellor won a battle with the right-wing of the party in the run-up to the gathering by torpedoing its bid to set a cap on the number of asylum seekers Germany would take in – a proposal she has denounced as immoral and unconstitutional.
The compromise text instead calls for a "tangible reduction of asylum seekers and refugees."
Ahead of an EU summit this week, Merkel has banked on a multi-prong approach to cut refugee numbers, urging bolstered protection for the bloc's external borders, support for Turkey to host refugees long-term, and a long-shot bid for a distribution scheme among EU member states.
Germany, Europe's top economic power, is split roughly down the middle on the refugee question.
Merkel has come out firmly in favour of continuing to help the world's desperate people, particularly those from war-ravaged Syria, and regularly repeats the rallying cry "We can do it."
But with no end in sight to the influx, despite a respite due to rough winter weather complicating the perilous Mediterranean crossing, Germans are demanding a clear road map from the 61-year-old leader.
The political stakes are high with three regional polls scheduled in March, and a decision due next year on whether Merkel will carry the CDU's banner into the 2017 general election.
The CDU is doubly nervous because the disaffection has given a boost to the right-wing populist AfD party, which has soared to 10 per cent in some polls.
"Many traditional voters feel homeless," news weekly Der Spiegel wrote in its current cover story headlined "The Anxious Nation."
Nevertheless, the CDU has recovered its footing in the polls after a steep drop in the autumn and is now tallying about 39 per cent, just 2.5 points off its 2013 showing in the general election.
The SPD trails far behind at about 24 per cent.
Merkel also has no clear challenger within her party, as even CDU critics acknowledge that she is by far their strongest asset as a candidate. — AFP