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Rejecting migrant policy, Berlin voters deal blow to Merkel's party

Angela Merkel said she accepted some responsibility for her party's poor performance in a Berlin state election, in which voters rejected the German Chancellor's open-door refugee policy.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends news conference after the European Union summit - the first one since Britain voted to quit - in Bratislava, Slovakia September 16, 2016. Merkel has acknowledged responsibility for "very bitter" losses for her party in recent state elections, following a Berlin state election.

Leonhard Foeger/ Reuters

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel has acknowledged responsibility for "very bitter" losses for her party in recent state elections, following a Berlin state election. 

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) finished second, with just 17.6 percent of the vote. The results are seemingly backlash from Merkel's open-door immigration policies, which have led to an influx of refugees.

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"I take responsibility as party leader and chancellor," Merkel said. She vowed to address voters' concerns about immigration, but maintained that if people don't want Muslim asylum-seekers because of their religion, that was against the party and country's basic principles. "The CDU and I can't go along with that."

The Social Democrats (SPD), which is in a coalition with the CDU, also saw lower support in the Berlin election, winning just 21.6 percent, down 6.7 points. Support for the CDU dropped 5.7 points.

CDU and SPD remained the two leading parties, but the coalition may be threatened by the loss of votes.

In contrast, the three-year-old nationalist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gained traction among new voters and drew some from other parties, winning 14.2 percent of the vote. Voter participation was up to 66.9 percent, compared to 60.2 percent in the last election.

Just two weeks earlier, the AfD beat the CDU into third place in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, in a campaign focused on Merkel's decision to open the country's borders to migrants last year.

Markus Söder, the Bavarian finance minister of the CSU, the Bavarian sister-party to the CDU, called the Berlin election the "second massive wake-up call" in two weeks. 

"A long-term and massive loss in trust among traditional voters threatens the conservative bloc," he told the Bild daily, adding that for Merkel's right-left national coalition to win back support, they would need to shift gears on immigration policy.

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The CSU has called upon Merkel to take a tougher stance on migrants, suggesting a cap of 200,000 refugees a year. Merkel rejects that idea, Reuters reports.

The AfD celebrated the Berlin election, with AfD candidate Georg Pazderski telling supporters, "From zero to double digits, that's unique for Berlin. The grand coalition has been voted out – not yet at the national level, but that will happen next year."

The election in 2017 may see AfD entering the lower parliament, say commentators. 

"With the Berlin result, the AfD has consolidated its position and shown it can appeal to voters across the board – it is now represented in a big city, eastern German states and in more affluent western states like Baden-Württemberg," said Thomas Jäger, a political scientist at Cologne University.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.