A populist far-right German party that has fiercely attacked the government for letting in more than a million refugees in the last year is expected to be the big winner in three important state elections Sunday that will serve as a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel's controversial open-door policies.
The party has aimed its appeal to German voters with a shrill anti-foreigner bent that has some similarities to Donald Trump's bid to win the Republican nomination for U.S. president.
The Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, has campaigned hard against refugees streaming into the country, mostly from Syria and Iraq, and it has surged in public opinion polls from about 3% last summer to as high as 20% ahead of elections in three of Germany's 16 states. That is far above the 4.7% the AfD won in the 2013 federal election just half a year after it was formed mainly to oppose Europe's single currency, the euro, and the expensive European Union financial bailouts to Greece.
Political leaders across the board say there is zero chance of the AfD taking power in the states of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate or Saxony-Anhalt because the other four mainstream parties running in those states have vowed to reject any kind of a coalition with it. Still, the AfD's projected electoral triumphs have upset the political establishment in Germany.
The party's success could give Merkel a black eye in the most important German elections this year ahead of the 2017 federal election. It may also make it harder for the other parties to pull together 50% of the seats in the state assemblies to form working coalitions after the bellwether vote.
"These state elections and the increasing strength of the AfD could cause a considerable amount of uncertainty for Merkel," said Thorsten Hasche, a political scientist at Goettingen University. "It's usually only state issues that decide these elections, but this time it's all been turned into a referendum on Merkel's refugee policies."
Hasche said the AfD, which is polling between 10% in the rural western state of Rhineland-Palatinate — where a major U.S. air base and about 60,000 Americans are stationed — and 20% in the impoverished eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, has succeeded in tapping support from frustrated voters with low incomes and education the same way that Trump has attracted many such voters in the United States. Along with Baden-Wuerttemberg, those states collectively are home to 17 million of Germany's 82 million residents.
"Trump has won over voters who are disappointed with the establishment, and the AfD has won over voters disappointed with mainstream parties," he said.
A number of small postwar far-right parties have emerged in Germany, but because of the country's Nazi past they by and large have been repudiated after surges in support to as high as 10%. None have held seats in any state or federal government, and support for most all but collapsed within a few years.
AfD leader Frauke Petry, a 40-year-old chemist and businesswoman, has not shied away from breaking taboos and making outlandish statements that especially resonate among far-right voters. She has aggressively attacked Merkel's open-door policies on refugees and warned about the perils to German identity in the face of so many Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others fleeing wars and violence who are pouring into the country.
"The only thing I can say about the AfD is that they say no to a lot of things but never offer any concrete solutions," said Merkel in a radio interview Friday in Saxony-Anhalt at the end of a campaign in which she has worked hard to thwart the upstart party. "But the voters are obviously concerned and they see that the refugee issue hasn't been resolved, and they have the impression that we haven't found solutions for all the problems."
Petry has raised concerns among some people for calling for more border guards to prevent refugees from illegally entering the country and for urging guards to use guns as a deterrent if necessary. The position drew some praise from the far right but widespread condemnation in a country that was long divided by walls and East German border guard shootings of people trying to flee to West Germany during the Cold War.
"She latches onto an issue and makes statements that no one dared to make before, just like Trump," said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University. "It's all a bit too shrill for some people but music to the ears of others — saying things like 'shooting refugees at the border' or 'build the wall to Mexico.' They both appeal to voters who are fed up with what is politically correct."
Jaeger said both are also attracting large numbers of voters who in the past had not bothered to cast ballots. "She's attracting not only those on the far right but also doing well in the demographic groups of those with decent jobs who nevertheless feel foreigners and refugees coming in are the competition."
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.