A new far-right German party that campaigned aggressively against the refugees who have poured into the country in the last year scored stunning victories in three state elections on Sunday as voters rejected Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policies and abandoned her conservative party in droves.
The populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which turned the elections in three of Germany's 16 federal states into a referendum on Merkel's refugee policies, won 24% of the vote in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, 12.5% in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg and 11.7% in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Those preliminary results, based on exit polls for German TV network ARD, far succeeded pre-election forecasts. Voters were clearly riled up about the issue as turnout surged to levels above 70%, about 10 percentage points higher than in the previous elections.
In the campaign, the AfD kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism against Germany's decision to take in 1.3 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"We don't want to take in any refugees and we'll keep pushing the other parties to follow us," said Alexander Gauland, a leader of the AfD, whose campaign tactics have been compared to those of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries in the United States.
As with Trump, the AfD was especially popular with people who feel threatened economically, especially men with low incomes and low levels of education. Much of its success came at the expense of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and its allies.
"The CDU was beaten in these three states because the people don't like Merkel and her policies," Gauland said in a German TV interview.
The AfD was established in 2013 to oppose financial bailouts for Greece, and later morphed into an anti-refugee party. Never before had a party in Germany won as much support in its first election as in Saxony-Anhalt, an economically depressed state with a 10% unemployment rate. At a raucous AfD celebration in the Saxony-Anhalt capital of Magdeburg, party supporters chanted "Merkel muss weg" ("Merkel has to go").
The defeats to her party allies in the three states could lead to increased pressure from other conservative leaders on Merkel to close the country's door to refugees, which she has refused to do, even as other European Union countries have.
The AfD's strength will not have any immediate effect on Merkel's government because the refugee issue is managed by her federal government, not by the states. These were, however, the first elections in Germany since Merkel threw open the door to refugees last summer and the most important bellwether before next year's federal election.
The AfD will remain an opposition party in all three states because the other parties have all vowed not to share power with the far-right party. Despite losing votes in all three states, Merkel's party will likely remain in power in Saxony-Anhalt. It saw its hopes of winning back power in the other two states destroyed by the AfD, however.
Analysts said the AfD attracted large numbers of voters from Merkel's conservatives but also scored well among those who had not voted in previous elections.
"The AfD's strength comes almost entirely from their anti-refugee position," said Manfred Guellner, managing director of the Forsa polling institute, in an interview. "The issue is the magnet for the AfD and it's attracted all the voters with latent right-wing extremist views. But when the refugee question passes, that support will likely collapse."
The AfD succeeded in mobilizing more than 150,000 new voters in the three states by railing against foreigners, calling for border reinforcements to prevent refugees and migrants from sneaking into the country, and breaking taboos with statements that were regarded as politically incorrect.
"The refugee issue is what people care about most," said AfD leader Frauke Petry. "We're not trying to whip up fears. We're just talking about the problem the way it is. We've got a problem in Germany and that's why we did so well and voter turnout was so high."
Trump caused a stir with his pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border, while Petry drew notoriety for the AfD by calling for more border guards to prevent refugees from illegally entering the country and for urging them to use their guns as a deterrent if necessary – remarks which drew widespread condemnation in a country that was long divided by walls and East German border guard shootings during the Cold War.
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent