It was regarded as a warm-up for the main event.
And Germany's mainstream parties are very worried by the results. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party exceeded expections in municipal elections in the western German state of Hesse at the weekend, striking fear into the heart of the established parties as they head into three crucial state elections this Sunday.
At the end of January, polls began to suggest that the AfD, might win up to 12 percent of voters in Hesse in the March 6 vote.
Asked to comment, Volker Bouffier, the state premier, from Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, expressed concerned, but added: “Opinion polls are not election results.”
This was true, it turned out, but not in the way Mr. Bouffier or the other main parties hoped.
In Sunday’s municipal elections in Hesse, a prosperous southern state which contains Frankfurt am Main, Germany’s financial capital, the anti-immigrant AfD won around 13.2 percent of the vote. This beat the environmentalist Green Party into fourth place, and inflicted significant losses on the Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats.
What was also worrying is that the far-right National Democractic Party of Germany had a good election, with pockets of extremely strong support in some small towns. Germany's high court is currently considering whether to ban the party, which the country's domestic intelligence agency regards as anti-Semitic and racist.
In Frankfurt, the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Greens lost their majority on the city council. If the pattern were repeated in state parliamentary elections, Mr. Bouffier’s ruling state coalition of the CDU and Greens would also be put at risk.
I can only hope that this alarming election result is a wake-up call ahead of the state elections. Omid Nouripour, Green Party federal parliamentary deputy
The highly complicated electoral system, which allows voters to make multiple choices across party lines, means that final results will not be known until the end of the week. But early results indicate a clear trend. And the earthquake in the party landscape could not be explained away by citing low turnout: at 48 percent, it was no worse than in the last municipal elections in 2011.
Mr. Bouffier blamed the AfD’s triumph on disagreements over refugee policy within the federal government coalition. “Arguments within the grand coalition in Berlin were certainly not helpful,” he said. Omid Nouripour, a Green Party representative for Hesse in the federal parliament, said he was shocked: “I can only hope that the alarming election result with the AfD and the NPD acts as a wake-up call ahead of the state elections,” he told Handelsblatt.
Others found the AfD’s success less surprising. Thorsten Faas, a researcher into German elections, said that opinion poll results had pointed towards AfD successes. He said they might be repeated in Sunday’s three state elections, to be held in the states of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt.
Mr. Faas agreed with Mr. Bouffier, saying that disagreements on a federal level had created an impression that the main parties were not competent to deal with the refugee crisis. This, along with widespread popular anxiety, played into the hands of the AfD.
The success of the AfD in Hesse ended the hope that strong new right-wing parties would only emerge in the former communist eastern states of Germany, often seen as more disposed to right-wing extremism.
The AfD does pay attention to an East-West divide: in the East, leaders of the AfD have made anti-foreigner speeches, while in the West, the party presents a more moderate face: one AfD spokesman in Hesse, Albrecht Glaser, was a Christian Democratic municipal politician for 40 years, including many years as Frankfurt city treasurer, before leaving to help found the AfD in 2013. Another, Rolf Kahnt, was a long-serving teacher. But a third AfD spokesman in Hesse, Peter Münch, comes from a less respectable political background: two decades ago, he was active in the Republican party, an extreme-right party which briefly flourished in the 1980s.
The AfD was first founded in 2013 by euroskeptic academics who opposed Germany's role in the euro-zone bailouts. However, the party began to move towards the right-wing populist spectrum and founder, Bernd Lücke, was ousted as leader by Frauke Petry last year. The party looked like its internal disputes would see it fade into obscurity, but the refugee crisis has given it a new lease of life.
With one eye on next week’s regional elections, AfD leader Ms. Petry welcomed the Hesse municipal results. “The power of the established parties is beginning to crumble,” she said. Mr. Faas, the political scientist, said the AfD could look forward to good results in some regional elections. A lot might depend on turnout, he said: high voter participation might boost the established parties.
Shock at the AfD’s municipal gains was also expressed in the states where voters go to the polls on Sunday. Malu Dreyer, the Social Democratic state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, told Handelsblatt that she “found the AfD result alarming. It makes me extremely anxious.”
Right-wing populists fool people into believing there are easy solutions on refugees. But that is not true. Gerd Landsberg, Head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities
Ms. Dreyer added that in her own campaigning, she always emphasized that the AfD was not a normal protest party. “It is a party with extreme-right wing positions. It is changing our state,” Ms. Dreyer warned.
In Baden-Württemburg, another state with an election on Sunday, Nils Schmid, the Social Democrat state party leader, told Handelsblatt: “Every vote for the SPD is a vote against hate and rabble-rousers.”
Peter Tauber, the general secretary of the Christian Democrats on a federal level, did not want to make a comment to Handelsblatt. His own constituency is in Hesse and there the CDU only reached 27.1 percent of the vote, with the AfD winning 15.6 percent.
“Right-wing populists fool people into believing there are easy solutions on refugees. But that is not the case,” said Gerd Landsberg, head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, an organization representing local government bodies. “Democratic parties have the job of making that clear, time and again,” said Mr. Landsberg.
But there may be worse options than the Alternative for Germany. In places where the AfD did not stand for election, the NPD sometimes gained solid support. In Büdigen, a small town near Frankfurt with a large refugee home, in the absence of any AfD candidate, the extremist NPD won 14 percent.
Heike Anger is an editor for economics and politics at Handelsblatt. Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].