Merkel faces hot summer after rash of terrorist attacks in Germany
BERLIN - A rash of attacks in Germany has emboldened political rivals of Chancellor Angela Merkel, blaming her liberal asylum policy for exposing the country to a shocking week of bloodshed.
Four brutal assaults in Germany's south, 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 the 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 (ISIS) 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 in 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 1990s.
Investigators say he was obsessed with mass killings, including Norwegian rightwing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik's 2011 massacre, and have ruled out an Islamist motive.
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.
"What we always warned of has now happened," Frauke Petry, head of the rightwing populist AfD party, said in a statement.
Horst Seehofer, conservative premier of Bavaria state which saw three of the attacks, called into question the principle that asylum seekers should never be sent back to war zones. He later backtracked, citing international law.
However, he insisted: "We must seriously consider how such people should be treated if they violate the law or can be considered a danger."
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 was 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 that injured four passengers on a train in the city of Wuerzburg and a passer-by.
But while Thomas de Maiziere, Merkel's federal interior minister, 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, while warning against blanket suspicion of refugees.
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.
But she has since called a news conference on Thursday "on current domestic and foreign policy issues" in an apparent acknowledgement that her absence was causing anxiety.
The country's top-selling newspaper, Bild, which has generally backed Merkel's stance on refugees, praised her cool-headed approach.
"Our state works better than most and... our people are quick to support each other in times of extreme stress," it said.
"Our state and our society should therefore give us confidence to overcome our fears."
But analysts warned the strategy was risky, with a poll in Merkel's political fiefdom, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, on September 4 followed by Berlin's state election on September 18.
The AfD, which gained support after a spate of sexual assaults on New Year's Eve in Cologne blamed largely on Arab and North African men, aims to make a strong showing in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which would deal Merkel a powerful blow one year ahead of a general election.
Martin Emmer, professor of political communications at Berlin's Free University, warned that Merkel's hyperrational style 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 said.