In German state election, Angela Merkel’s migrant policies sparks rise of upstart Alternative for Germany, or AfD Party

The Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — A nationalist, anti-immigration party performed strongly in a German state election Sunday in the region where Chancellor Angela Merkel has her political base, overtaking her conservatives to take second place amid discontent with her migrant policies, projections indicated.

The three-year-old Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 21 to 22 percent of votes in the election for the state legislature in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, according to projections for ARD and ZDF television based on exit polls and partial counting. They put support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats between 19 and 20 percent, their worst result yet in the state.

The center-left Social Democrats, who led the outgoing state government, were the strongest party with about 30-percent support.

AfD member Alexander Gauland, left, and Leif-Erik Holm, top candidate of the AfD, toast at the gathering of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) party in Schwer...

AfD member Alexander Gauland, left, and Leif-Erik Holm, top candidate of the AfD, toast at the gathering of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) party in Schwerin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016 after the state elections in the German federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Exit polls indicate that the nationalist, anti-immigration party has performed strongly in a state election in the region where Chancellor Angela Merkel has her political base, likely overtaking her conservative party. ( AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Economically weak Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, in Germany’s northeastern corner, is home to 1.6 million of the country’s 80 million people and is a relative political lightweight. It is, however, the state where Merkel has her parliamentary constituency, and Sunday’s regional vote was the first of five before a national election expected next September.

National AfD leader Frauke Petry celebrated “a blow to Angela Merkel.” Local AfD leader Leif-Erik Holm told supporters: “Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship today.”

Merkel’s refugee policies were a prominent issue in the campaign for Sunday’s election, which came a year to the day after she decided to let migrants who were waiting in Hungary to travel to Germany — setting off the peak of last year’s influx. Germany registered more than 1 million people as asylum-seekers last year.

New arrivals in Germany have slowed drastically this year, policies have been tightened and Mecklenburg is home to few foreigners. Still, New Year’s Eve robberies and sexual assaults in Germany blamed largely on foreigners, as well as two attacks in July carried out by asylum-seekers and claimed by the Islamic State group, have fed tensions.

Merkel has stuck to her insistence that “we will manage” the refugee crisis, and has also said that “sometimes you have to endure such controversies.”

“This result, and the strong performance of AfD, is bitter for many, for everyone in our party,” said Peter Tauber, her Christian Democrats’ general secretary.

He said the state government’s positive record took a back seat for many voters, “because among a recognizable part, there was an explicit wish to voice displeasure and protest, and we saw that particularly strongly in the discussion about refugees.”

Sunday’s result could make it more difficult for Merkel to bury a festering dispute with the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian arm of her conservative bloc, which has long criticized her decision to open the borders and advocated an annual cap on migrants.

CSU general secretary Andreas Scheuer said that “we feel vindicated in our course.”

Merkel has yet to say whether she will seek a fourth term next year, as is widely expected. While polls this year have shown her popularity slipping from stellar to merely solid, there is no obvious conservative alternative and her bloc is ahead nationally.

“She is, in people’s perception, personally responsible for the border opening, and she has to deal with that,” political science professor Karl-Rudolf Korte told ZDF television. “But she can deal with it — she has a year.”

Mecklenburg was the only one of Germany’s 16 states where the far-right National Democratic Party was represented in a state legislature, but it appeared to have lost its seats on Sunday. Its support dropped below the 5 percent needed to keep them, with many supporters apparently switching to AfD.

The state has been run for the past decade by the parties that currently run Germany. Popular Social Democratic governor Erwin Sellering has governed with Merkel’s party as his junior partner. Both parties lost support compared with the last state election in 2011, when they polled 35.6 and 23 percent, respectively.

The opposition Left Party — once popular with protest voters — also lost support, slipping about six points to 12.5 percent. The left-leaning Greens were hovering around the 5 percent mark.

AfD is now represented in nine of Germany’s 16 state legislatures and hopes to enter the national Parliament next year. Still, it fell well short Sunday of its aim of becoming the strongest party in Mecklenburg, and also didn’t match the 24.3 percent support it won in another eastern state, Saxony-Anhalt, in March.

There’s no realistic prospect at present of AfD going into government. Other parties won’t deal with it.

The next regional election is Sept. 18 in Berlin, where local issues are likely to play a stronger role.

Related:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel , center, poses with supporters  during an election campaign event in Bad Doberan, eastern Germany, Saturday Sept. 3, 3016.  ...

German Chancellor Angela Merkel , center, poses with supporters during an election campaign event in Bad Doberan, eastern Germany, Saturday Sept. 3, 3016. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision a year ago to open the borders to a surge of migrants is casting a long shadow over a state election this weekend in Germany’s economically weak northeast, where an anti-immigration party is poised for strong gains. Polls suggest that the 3-year-old Alternative for Germany can expect to win over 20 percent of votes Sunday in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a coastal region where Merkel has her parliamentary constituency. (Bernd Wuestneck/dpa via AP)

Secretary General of chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats,  Peter Tauber,  speaks about the results of the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western P...

Secretary General of chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, Peter Tauber, speaks about the results of the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania S, in Berlin, Sunday Sept 4, 2016. Exit polls indicate that a nationalist, anti-immigration party has performed strongly in a state election in the region where Chancellor Angela Merkel has her political base, likely overtaking her conservative party. (The exit polls for ARD and ZDF public television put support for Alternative for Germany, or AfD, in Sunday’s election for the state legislature in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania around 21 percent. They put support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats at 19 or 20 percent. (Gregor Fischer/dpa via AP)

AfD  (Alternative for Germany) party chairwoman,  Frauke Petry,  speaks with journalists after first exit polls for the state elections in Mecklenburg-Wester...

AfD (Alternative for Germany) party chairwoman, Frauke Petry, speaks with journalists after first exit polls for the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, , in Schwerin, Germany, Sunday Sept. 4, 2016. The exit polls for ARD and ZDF public television put support for Alternative for Germany, or AfD, in Sunday’s election for the state legislature in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania around 21 percent. They put support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats at 19 or 20 percent. (Christian Charisius/dpa via AP)

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania governor,  Erwin Sellering, leading candidate of the Social Democratic Party, SPD, waving after the announcement of the first  ...

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania governor, Erwin Sellering, leading candidate of the Social Democratic Party, SPD, waving after the announcement of the first exit polls during the state election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in Schwerin, Germany, Sunday Sept. 4, 2016. The center-left Social Democrats, who lead the outgoing state government, were expected to be the strongest party with about 30 percent support. (Bernd Wuestneck/dpa via AP)

Top candidate  of chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats for the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lorenz Caffier, casts his vote in ...

Top candidate of chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats for the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lorenz Caffier, casts his vote in Neustrelitz, eastern Germany, Sunday Sept. 4, 2016. A nationalist, anti-immigration party looks set to perform strongly Sunday in state election in the eastern German region where Chancellor Angela Merkel has her political base. Polls ahead of the election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania show support for the three-year-old Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party running at over 20 percent. (Bernd Wuestneck/dpa via AP)

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