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German Leader's Open-Door Policy For Refugees Threatens Her Political Future

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The number of asylum-seekers entering Germany is unsettling the public and paralyzing the government. This is leaving long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel isolated in a way she's never been before. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin on how a refugee crisis that could define the German leader's legacy is also threatening her political future.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The embattled chancellor told reporters today that what she wants is pretty simple.

ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: She says she hopes that in a few years, Germans will say her government handled the refugee crisis well. Yet in her 10 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel has rarely faced this kind of political turmoil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: A narrator for ZDF public TV recently noted that the pressure on Merkel has never been so great, nor the rumors about her so dangerous, like her finance minister being talked about as her possible successor and Merkel supposedly being considered for a U.N. post - much loved but cast-off.

ALAN CRAWFORD: This is, without doubt, the biggest challenge of her time in office.

NELSON: That's Alan Crawford, a senior Bloomberg journalist and co-author of "Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged In Crisis."

CRAWFORD: She's definitely taking on elements within her own party, large sections of the public. She's also at odds with many of her European partners.

NELSON: Crawford says Merkel shows no signs of abandoning her open arms policy for refugees nor her belief that her country can cope with the crisis. He says that as a daughter of a Lutheran pastor who grew up in communist East Germany, Merkel is moved by the migrants' plight and opposes fences to keep them out.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling).

NELSON: That's made her popular among many refugees, like this group of Syrians aboard a Hungarian bus who chant for the German chancellor. But winter is coming, and with more and more German towns short on resources to cope with the migrants, German criticism of Merkel's approach is mounting. Her public support, and that of her CDU political party, has dropped dramatically in recent months. A recent poll found a third of German respondents want her to resign. Again, author Crawford.

CRAWFORD: She knows that if this is to succeed - and of course, that's a massive if - she could change the whole outlook of German society and, frankly, give Germany a different face from the postwar face that it's carried for so long.

NELSON: For now she is having a hard time convincing her conservative faction to embrace a more liberal immigration policy. Many members prefer to cap the number of refugees and hold migrants at the border while their asylum cases are evaluated.

Christian von Stetten, who was a German Parliament member from Merkel's CDU Party, told the ZDF network, it's time for the bickering to stop.

CHRISTIAN VON STETTEN: (Through interpreter) We have a tense situation in all of Germany, with one million refugees, but it's our job to find solutions because people don't care who solves the problems - they just want them solved.

NELSON: Merkel and her coalition leaders will try to do just that on Thursday when they next meet. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.