Incensed over refugees, east Germans punish easterner Merkel

Christian Democratic Union CDU party leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures after winning the German general election (Bundestagswahl) in Berlin, Germany, September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By Noah Barkin BERLIN (Reuters) - For weeks, Chancellor Angela Merkel endured taunts and whistles whenever she ventured out on the campaign trail in her home region of eastern Germany. And on Sunday, it was voters in the east, incensed by her decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country, that helped send her conservatives to their worst result since 1949 and vaulted a far-right party into the German parliament. Preliminary results showed the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) winning 22.9 percent of the vote in the former communist east, well above their national result of roughly 13 percent. The AfD performed especially well with east German men, 26 percent of whom backed the party. Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) scored 27.6 percent -- well below their national result of nearly 33 percent -- in the five states that became part of a reunified Germany in 1990. Merkel did secure a fourth term on Sunday, but she limped to the finish line and must now cobble together an unwieldy coalition with two other parties -- the business friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and environmentalist Greens -- that have diametrically opposed views on many of the big issues. The result suggested that pollsters may have underestimated the lingering impact of the refugee crisis in the election and the outsized influence it would have in the east, where voters continue to behave very differently than their brethren in the west 28 years after the fall of the Wall. Earlier this month, a top aide to Merkel described the east German hecklers as a small minority and suggested the refugee crisis was no longer a negative factor for Merkel. The results on Sunday suggested otherwise. "East German voters are more extreme and less loyal to the traditional parties. This is how it has been ever since the Wall fell," said Hendrik Traeger, a political scientist in Leipzig. Appearing on German television on Sunday night, Merkel was pressed once again on her decision two years ago to allow thousands of refugees who had set out on foot from the main train station in Budapest, Hungary into Germany. In the months that followed, thousands more made their way across the Aegean Sea to Greece and up the Balkans to Germany, encouraged by scenes of Germans welcoming migrants with food and clothes, and possibly also by selfies that refugees took with Merkel. "We've gone over and over what happened in the autumn of 2015 and I remain convinced that all the other options that were discussed at the time - perhaps deploying water cannons on the German border and such - were out of the question for me," Merkel said. "I think this decision was right." During her campaign appearances, Merkel told her audiences repeatedly that the influx of 2015 would never be repeated. But she was denounced as a "traitor to the people" at numerous campaign events in the east, language that would have been unthinkable before the refugee crisis. Merkel grew up behind the Iron Curtain in the town of Templin north of Berlin. Her father, a Lutheran pastor with socialist leanings, moved the family from west to east shortly after Merkel was born, and before the Berlin Wall was built. In the last German election in 2013, Merkel's conservatives won 38.5 percent of the vote in the east, more than 10 points better than Sunday's result. (Reporting by Noah Barkin; Editing by Peter Graff)