MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To Germany now, where it has not been the easiest election season for Chancellor Angela Merkel. She is pursuing a fourth term as chancellor, and she's ahead in the polls. But noisy protests at many of her campaign appearances show she's still vulnerable, even in her political hometown. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently visited the eastern German port town where many of her constituents live.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS SQUAWKING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Since German reunification 27 years ago, the medieval town of Stralsund near the Baltic coast has been a key part of Angela Merkel's electoral district. Most voters here have been loyal to Merkel and admire her, says Benjamin Fischer of the regional paper Ostsee-Zeitung.
BENJAMIN FISCHER: (Speaking German).
NELSON: He says residents are proud the most powerful woman in Germany happens to be their MP. Fischer says they are also drawn to the chancellor's down-to-earth personality and enthusiasm, not only for politics but everyday topics like cooking. But the editor says voters here in Stralsund turned on the chancellor over her decision to allow more than a million mostly Muslim asylum-seekers into Germany since 2015. Most Eastern German voters are frustrated by lingering economic disparity with their Western German counterparts and fear the situation will worsen because of the refugees.
It's a fear stoked by the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The party scored an embarrassing victory over Merkel's Christian Democrats in elections last year in the German state that is home to her electoral district. Stralsund was the first German town where Merkel came face to face with AfD protesters.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in German).
NELSON: They shouted, "Merkel must go" as she arrived for a meeting at the city hall in late February 2016. Fischer says among the protesters was former radio presenter Leif-Erik Holm, who is now challenging the chancellor for her parliamentary seat.
LEIF-ERIK HOLM: (Speaking German).
NELSON: Holm says he is confident he can win here, even if Merkel's Christian Democrats, or CDU, are long established and far better-financed here.
HOLM: (Speaking German).
NELSON: He says Merkel's refugee policy makes her vulnerable, even though fewer asylum-seekers are coming to Germany these days and few refugees ever settled in Stralsund. Holm says voters see TV reports on asylum-seekers committing crimes in other parts of Germany, like the terror attack in Berlin last Christmas, or forming what he describes as parallel societies that threaten German culture and existence.
Ann Christin von Allwoerden is a policewoman and Stralsund's CDU representative in the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania state legislature. She says the perceived threat by refugees, however exaggerated, hurts her and other Christian Democrats.
ANN CHRISTIN VON ALLWOERDEN: (Speaking German).
NELSON: The state lawmaker says she won by only 56 votes. But she doesn't blame Merkel for the CDU's poor showing, saying she supports her refugee policy as just and humane. Most Stralsund residents NPR spoke to were reluctant to share their views on Merkel or how they plan to vote in parliamentary elections on September 24. Surveys have shown some drop in support for the AfD populace in recent months. And another trend that benefits Merkel is that her party tends to do better in national elections than local ones here.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Stralsund.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE MAN'S "ONCE UPON A TIME (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.