German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government Wednesday set September 24 as the date for a general election in which she will seek a fourth term, facing populist headwinds over a record migrant influx.
The date, adopted by Merkel’s right-left coalition cabinet, must still be formally approved by President Joachim Gauck.
But the decision fires the starting gun for an election campaign that Merkel has said will be her toughest yet due to popular opposition to her liberal asylum policy.
Merkel is nevertheless the clear frontrunner in the race and enjoys solid popularity in Europe’s top economy.
A poll released Wednesday showed her conservative Christian Union bloc (CDU/CSU) as the strongest political force in the country with 38 percent.
It was followed in distant second place by the Social Democrats (SPD), current junior partners in Merkel’s “grand coalition” government.
And the right-wing anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has railed against Merkel’s decision to let in more than one million asylum seekers since 2015, lost one percentage point compared to last week to reach 11 percent.
The head of the Forsa opinion research institute which conducted the poll, Manfred Guellner, said a jihadist attack on a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people and was committed by a failed asylum seeker had failed to boost support for the AfD.
“Although the security debate after the Berlin terror attack is running high, the AfD is unable to capitalise on it,” Guellner said in a statement.
“It is actually losing support while the CDU/CSU and the SPD are stabilising.”
The AfD, born as a eurosceptic party in 2013, has attempted to harness public unease with the issue of migration and asylum and, due to its relative strength, threatens to scramble the potentially complicated arithmetic of coalition building after the election.
The poll, conducted January 9 to 13 among a representative sample of 2,053 eligible voters, showed the ecologist Greens and the far-left Linke each at nine percent and the pro-business Free Democrats at six percent.
US President-elect Donald Trump said in a newspaper interview Monday that Merkel had made a “catastrophic mistake” in letting migrants flood into Germany.
However some analysts say German uncertainty over the future of the post-war order with Trump at the helm in Washington could help Merkel’s campaign as voters seek signs of stability.