A rash of attacks in Germany has emboldened political rivals of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who blamed her liberal asylum policy on Tuesday for exposing the country to a shocking week of bloodshed.
Four brutal assaults in the south of the country, three of which were carried out by asylum seekers, have rattled Germans and revived a backlash against Merkel’s decision last year to open the borders to those fleeing war and persecution.
“It all appeared to be going pretty well for Merkel but the situation has changed dramatically in 10 days between the Nice attack and Sunday’s suicide bomber in Ansbach,” the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote, referring to attacks in France and Germany claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.
“The chancellor must once again fear that she will be punished by the voters”, with two pivotal state polls looming in September.
Merkel’s aides were quick to point out that three of the four assailants arrived in Germany before the record influx that brought more than one million refugees and migrants last year.
The fourth, a teenager who went on a shooting rampage in Munich on Friday killing nine before turning the gun on himself, was born and raised in Germany, the son of Iranian asylum seekers who arrived in the country in the 1990s.
Investigators say he was obsessed with mass killings – including Norwegian rightwing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 massacre.
New asylum policy?
The violence reignited political friction that had eased as the number of new arrivals to Germany slowed to a trickle in recent months due to the closure of the Balkans migration route and an EU deal with Turkey to take back migrants.
Horst Seehofer, conservative premier of Bavaria state that saw three of the four attacks, on Tuesday called into question the principle that asylum seekers should never be sent back to war zones.
“We must seriously consider how such people should be treated if they violate the law or can be considered a danger,” he told Muenchner Merkur newspaper.
Seehofer leads the Christian Social Union, the sister party to Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, and has long been a vocal critic of the refugee influx for which Bavaria served as the primary gateway.
He ordered tightened security at airports and railway stations following the suicide bombing near a music festival in Ansbach that wounded 15 people and an axe attack on a train in the city of Wuerzburg that injured four passengers and a passer-by.
But while Merkel’s federal interior minister Thomas de Maiziere pledged to boost spot checks in border regions, Berlin made a point of resisting calls for a raft of new security laws.
“I will propose appropriate amendments when I think them necessary,” he told reporters. “The rule of law in Germany is strong and will remain strong – at the national and regional level.”
‘Overcome our fears’
Merkel, who has led Europe’s economic powerhouse for nearly 11 years, sought to project calm by remaining at her holiday cottage north of Berlin this week. Her spokeswoman assured reporters that the chancellor was “always on duty” and could quickly return to the capital “at any time” if needed.
The country’s top-selling newspaper, Bild, which has generally backed Merkel’s stance on refugees, praised the cool-headed approach.
“So IS terror has made it to Germany. It had to happen eventually. Germany couldn’t remain a peaceful island – with or without refugees,” it said in an editorial.
“But it is also true that our state works better than most and that our people are quick to support each other in times of extreme stress. Our state and our society should therefore give us confidence to overcome our fears.”
However, analysts warned the strategy was risky with a poll in Merkel’s political fiefdom, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, held on September 4 followed by Berlin’s state election on September 18.
The rightwing populist AfD party aims to make a strong showing in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in particular which would deal Merkel a powerful blow one year ahead of a general election.
Martin Emmer, professor of political communication at Berlin’s Free University, warned that Merkel’s hyper-rational style which has endeared her to Germans in troubled times could be found lacking if fear takes hold in the wake of the attacks.
“Politics has to cover both aspects – this emotional side in which you credibly pledge to protect citizens, and fact-bound policies that are able to ensure that,” he told AFP.