Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have edged to the right with plans for a tougher stance on asylum seekers and a ban on the burqa as the party attempts to shore up support in the wake of the nation's refugee crisis.
The CDU backed Merkel's bid for a fourth term as leader of Europe's biggest economy in next September's elections when they met at a party conference in the western German industrial city of Essen.
However, Merkel was dealt a setback when the vote for her as CDU chief fell to 89.5 per cent – her second lowest vote since she was first elected party chief in 2000.
She thanked the party's about 1,000 delegates for their confidence following the vote. But the decline in support underlined the hard battle she faces in the run-up to next year's election.
Tuesday's vote was the ninth time that she has been returned as party chief during her 16 years as CDU chief.
The chancellor, however, secured 96.7 per cent of the vote when the ballot for party chief was last held in 2014 when she was at the height of her political power, one year after winning the last national election.
Since then, Merkel's political standing has suffered after she opened up her nation's borders last year to allow about 900,000 refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa to enter Germany.
The move triggered deep divisions in Merkel's conservative political bloc and boosted support for the new anti-foreigner Alternative for Germany, which has drawn voters away from the CDU.
Several delegates lashed out at Merkel's liberal refugee stance in conference speeches.
Merkel had made it possible for the AfD to gain ground occupied by the CDU, said Christine Arlt-Palmer, a delegate from the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. "We will not regain this territory," she said.
Merkel had sought to use the two-day conference to draw the party in behind her leadership at the next election.
She told the conference that the waves of refugees that cross German borders last year would not be repeated and called for a ban on the Islamic full-face veil.
"A situation like that of the summer of 2015 can and should not be repeated," Merkel said. "This was and remains our declared political goal."
But it was her call for a ban on the burqa that won her hefty applause from delegates.
"The full veil must be banned wherever that is legally possible," she said, without setting any details of the plan.
The CDU has already begun drawing up plans for banning the full veil in areas such as courts, police checks and while driving cars.
Merkel told the conference that refugees had found protection in Germany from war and persecution. But she also told the conference that "not every refugee can stay."
Despite the slump in her support as party chief, delegates celebrated the chancellor's about one-and-half hour conference speech with an 11-minute standing ovation lasting minutes.
A poll published last month by public broadcaster ZDF showed 64 per cent of those surveyed supported Merkel's bid for another term as chancellor.
Merkel told the conference that the battle for 2017 election would be like no other in the history of unified Germany, with the CDU facing rigorous challenges from both the left and the right.
In line with Merkel's call to reduce the flow of asylum seekers, CDU is expected to toughen up the party's stance on refugees, including measures to step up deportations of failed asylum seekers.
Merkel told the conference that the priority had to be to ensure the stability of the European Union in the face of growing international uncertainties.
Germany's key European allies such as France, Italy and the Netherlands, are also facing the threat of a surge in support for populist and eurosceptic parties.
Combined with this has been the June vote in Britain to exit the European Union and the shock victory of the New York billionaire Donald Trump in last month's US presidential election.
"In this situation, in which the world appears to be coming apart, (the priority is) to ensure that Europe does not emerge even weaker from the crises than it went," Merkel said.
© 2021 dpa GmbH