MUNICH (Reuters) - Conservatives in the German state of Bavaria, facing losses in regional elections, on Saturday hammered home their support for tough migration policies while distancing themselves from far-right populists who have sucked away their support.
The Christian Social Union (CSU), Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian ally, has enjoyed six decades of dominance in the state but could lose nearly 13 percentage points in the Oct. 14 vote, a poll showed, as it bleeds support to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD).
CSU leaders this summer lurched to the right in response to the AfD’s gains - nearly collapsing the coalition government - before switching course to try to reclaim the center ground.
The CSU is part of Germany’s grand coalition with its sister party Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
The CSU stood at 35 percent in a new poll released late Friday by infratest-dimap, compared to the 47.7 percent in the last regional election in 2013. It showed the AfD at 11 percent, enough to enter the Bavarian state parliament for the first time.
“The polls this week weren’t pretty,” state premier Markus Soeder told reporters at the start of a day-long party congress aimed at rallying conservatives a month before the election.
“But they are a chance for a wake-up call.”
Both Soeder and party leader Horst Seehofer, who also heads the federal interior ministry, made impassioned speeches to supporters, calling for measures to prevent a repeat of the one-million-strong wave of migrants who entered Germany in 2015.
“Those who are not entitled to protection have to return to their countries of origin, because ... no country on this planet can take in unlimited numbers of refugees and migrants,” Seehofer told hundreds of delegates at the congress.
But both men also underscored their opposition to extremism amid calls for better scrutiny of the AfD after some of its leaders joined far-right activists in the eastern city of Chemnitz in protests stirred by the arrest of two migrant suspects in a fatal stabbing.
Unrest has continued in Chemnitz. Police arrested six people late on Friday after an attack on a 26-year-old Iranian man following an anti-migrant rally, the local broadcaster reported on Saturday.
Seehofer, at odds with Merkel since her 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to over a million refugees and migrants, insisted that his party stood for liberal values and would not tolerate anti-Semitism, xenophobia or right-wing extremism.
Soeder blasted the AfD for claiming in advertisements that the CSU’s revered former leader Franz Josef Strauss would have supported the AfD if we was still alive.
“Franz Josef Strauss would have fought the AfD, and we should do it too. Damn it, that’s a mission for us and we must take it on, together, with courage and determination,” he said to strong applause.
Reporting by Alexander Huebner and Reuters TV in Munich, with additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin, editing by Ros Russell