Opposition to Merkel's refugee policies builds after Cologne attacks

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's popularity has dropped after sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year's Eve that have been blamed on migrants, and a majority of Germans now believe she is doing a poor job managing the refugee crisis, a poll showed on Friday. The Politbarometer survey for public broadcaster ZDF was released as senior figures from the Social Democrats (SPD), her coalition partner, broke ranks and challenged her optimistic "we can do this" mantra in the face of a record influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees. "I am not as sure as Angela Merkel that we can do it,", former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told the German newspaper Handelsblatt, calling it an "illusion" to think that Germany could cope without introducing a formal cap on the number of migrants it allowed in. Stefan Weil, the SPD premier of the state of Lower Saxony, told the newspaper Die Welt that Merkel would have to "correct herself" over the course of the year, because her efforts to find a European solution to the crisis did not appear to be working. A day after support for Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) dropped two points in a survey for public broadcaster ARD, the new poll for ZDF made for even grimmer reading. It showed 56 percent of respondents believe Merkel is doing a poor job in the refugee crisis, up from 49 percent the month before. On a scale of +5 to -5, Merkel's own popularity slid to 1.0 from 1.7 in December, well below the level of her foreign and finance ministers, who both came in at 2.0. Support for her conservative bloc fell to 37 percent, its lowest level in over two years. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) shot up to a record high of 11 percent. The poll was published two weeks after groups of young men in Cologne surrounded and groped women in the square next to the city's cathedral on New Year's Eve. Police have blamed the assaults on migrants, mainly from North Africa, but so far no one has been formally charged. A total of 1.1 million migrants entered Germany in 2015, far more than any other European country. Under pressure from her conservative party, Merkel has vowed to "measurably reduce" the numbers this year. But she refused to introduce a cap, arguing that this would be impossible to enforce without closing German borders, with disastrous consequences for the European Union. Instead, she has tried to convince European partners to take on quotas of refugees, pushed for building "hotspot" reception centers on Europe's external borders and led an EU campaign to convince Turkey to keep refugees from entering the bloc. But progress has been slow on all fronts. "We either manage to curb numbers of arrivals on an international level, or we will have to do things nobody wants and which will harm Europe," Weil said. The ZDF poll showed that 60 percent of Germans no longer believe Merkel's "we can do this" pledge, up sharply from 46 percent in December. (Writing by Noah Barkin and Tina Bellon, editing by Larry King)