The right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party has powered itself into three state legislatures following Sunday elections, riding a wave of discontent over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis.
The chancellor’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, lost supporters in all three states – Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt – and will likely be able to name the state premier in just one of them.
The elections were widely seen as a litmus test of support for Ms. Merkel, who has staked her legacy on her decision last year to open Germany’s doors to more than 1 million refugees.
The chancellor’s party remained the top party in Saxony-Anhalt, a poor eastern state, where the CDU and the SPD have governed together and whose coalition will likely remain together. But the two parties there will have to deal with the AfD, which won 24 percent of the votes counted.
Never before has a new party in post-war Germany won so many votes in a state election. That support will give the AfD the second-largest number of seats in the state parliament.
The AfD is already represented in five of Germany's 16 regional parliaments.
In the other two states, the right-wing populist party easily surpassed the five-percent threshold of votes to be represented in German state and federal elections. It won 14.9 percent of the votes counted in Baden-Württemberg and 12.3 percent in Rhineland-Platinate.
The AfD already is represented in five of Germany's 16 regional parliaments. Under its young and charismatic new leader, Frauke Petry, the party has campaigned aggressively on closing Germany's border to asylum seekers.
"We have a German and a European Union problem," said Rainer Haselhof, the state premier of Saxony-Anhalt, in an interview with the German public broadcaster ARD. "We have a clear shift to the far right in the E.U. political landscape, and we need to respond at all levels."
The increasingly fragmented political landscape in Germany will make it more difficult to form coalitions at both the state and federal level, and could make politics in the country less predictable.
Even though the parties of the incumbent premiers in all three states have won the most votes, none of them have majorities and will need to find partners to form new governments.
The Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, the two “Volksparteien,” or people’s parties that have dominated German politics for decades, and the other parties represented in the state parliaments have ruled out coalitions with the AfD.
Ms. Merkel's conservatives failed to remain the top party in Baden-Württemberg, one of their traditional strongholds, losing to the Green Party in a historical victory for the left-of-center, environmentalist party. For the first time, the Greens won more votes than any other party. They benefited from the popularity of their 67-year-old local party leader Winfried Kretschmann, who was already serving as the state's premier in a coalition government.
Going into the elections, the Christian Democrats had high hopes of overtaking the Social Democrats in Rhineland Palatinate. Julia Klöckner, one of the CDU’s rising stars, had been leading her Social Democrat rival Malu Dreyer, who is also the state’s premier, by as much as 10 percent in the polls. But the Social Democrats managed a narrow victory in the end, their only one in the three state elections.
While in many ways the night belonged to the AfD, there were also signs that pro-refugee politicians won out against CDU candidates that took a more half-hearted stance.
Ms. Klöckner, like the CDU candidates in the other states, had partially distanced herself from the refugee crisis strategy of her party’s leader, Ms. Merkel, during her campaign. That move signaled the growing unrest among the rank in file of the chancellor's camp.
But unlike Ms. Klöckner, who pokered high and lost, Mr. Kretschmann, who is close to the political center and popular among many conservatives, underscored his support for the chancellor's refugee policy and won. The Greens were able to increase their share of the votes by the result: a 6.3 percent.
The SPD's Ms. Dreyer had similarly backed Ms. Merkel's open door policy.
Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden and political observer, tweeted after Sunday's elections that he could make "no easy conclusions on the German state elections." He noted that while AfD, the anti-immigrant party did well, "so did those clearly supporting Merkel's policy."
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]