Germany's far-right nationalist and anti-immigrant group AfD, or "Alternative for Germany" won seats in three states holding regional elections, exit polls indicated on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered losses in all three states, but held onto its status as the largest party in Saxony-Anhalt. However, even Merkel's victory in Saxony-Anhalt was undercut by the creeping popularity of the AfD, who slid neatly into second place with 23 percent of the vote – six percent more than pre-election polls had indicated.
The elections were expected to be a moment of truth for public perception of Merkel and her pro-immigration stance. The results suggest that AfD has, to some extent, been successful in courting voters who are disillusioned with Merkel and worried about Germany's new refugee population.
The German chancellor has consistently taken the moral high ground in response to Europe's refugee crisis and advocated for an open-door policy. Germany's population has swelled by over one million asylum seekers fleeing war and conflict at home. Merkel's stance has become increasingly controversial, particularly as other European countries close their borders and impose caps on the numbers of new arrivals. Germany reinstated checks at its Austrian border last September.
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All eyes were on the results of Sunday's regional elections, because Merkel will be up for national re-election next year. How her party fared in regional elections may have some bearing on her chances of remaining the German leader. That she lost support even in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg – traditionally a CDU stronghold – isn't a particularly good sign. There, support for the CDU dropped by about ten points to 29 percent, with many of its traditional voters defecting to the Green party. The AfD, meanwhile, took 12.5 percent of the vote.
Guido Wolf, the CDU candidate in the southwest, told DW that this year's electoral campaign was "the most difficult" the party had ever seen.
The AfD is a burgeoning political party that was founded just three years ago by a group of German nationalist economists who want Germany to leave the eurozone.
AfD leader Frauke Petry told a German radio station after the exit polls were announced on Sunday that the results showed "that numerous voters are turning their backs on well-established parties."
As part of its campaign, the AfD has pandered to xenophobic sentiment which has recently bubbled up among some Germans in response to the influx of refugees.
Last September, Merkel's open-door policy was crystallized in the moment that thousands of travel-worn refugees arrived at Munich's main train station. German nationals lined up to clap and cheer the new arrivals, handing out chocolate and clothing as they disembarked. But that "culture of welcome" or "Willkommenskultur" has started to come apart at the seams.
The Islamophobic PEGIDA movement, which has held large anti-immigrant protests, has gained traction in recent months — particularly in the aftermath of the attacks on Paris in November which left 130 dead. Anti-immigration groups used those attacks as a platform to promote the idea that refugees were a trojan horse for militants who trained with Islamic State in Syria or Iraq.
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In Dresden last December, 17,500 people showed up to join an anti-Islam rally. Earlier this year, a hotel which was converted into a shelter for refugees in Bautzen in what was formerly East Germany was burned to the ground.
In February, AfD leader Frauke Petry said during an interview with a German newspaper that border guards should shoot refugees to prevent illegal border crossings "if necessary." Her comments were condemned by establishment parties across the board.
Volker Beck, a politician with the Green Party, said Petry's statement showed that "the party is really dangerous."
Thomas de Maiziere, Germany's Interior Minister, warned voters against the AfD and said its anti-immigration and nationalist stance "harms our country."
The AfD, de Maiziere said in an interview with the Die Welt newspaper, has "no political concept and no competence in terms of finding solutions [to Germany's problems]."