Germany’s anti-migrant populists made a strong showing at state polls on Sunday, scoring ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party as voters punish the German leader over her liberal refugee policy.
The xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) obtained around 21 percent in its first bid for seats in the regional parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Vorpommern, according to exit polls shortly after voting ended.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, meanwhile, garnered just 19 percent in its worst ever showing in the north-eastern state, while the Social Democrats maintained top place with around 30 percent.
Calling it a “proud result,” Leif-Erik Holm, AfD’s lead candidate said, “And the cream of the cake is that we have left Merkel’s CDU behind us… maybe that is the beginning of the end of Merkel’s time as chancellor.”
Although the former Communist state is Germany’s poorest and least populous, it carries a symbolic meaning as it is home to Merkel’s constituency Stralsund.
The polls are also held exactly a year after the German leader made the momentous decision to let in tens of thousands of Syrian and other migrants marooned in eastern European countries.
Although she won praise at first, the optimism has given way to fears over how Europe’s biggest economy will manage to integrate the million people who arrived last year alone.
Her decision has left her increasingly isolated in Europe, and exposed her to heavy criticism at home, including from her own conservative allies.
In the sprawling farming and coastal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where economic regeneration and jobs used to top residents’ concerns, the issue of refugees and integration has become the deciding factor for one in two voters.
“I am voting AfD. The main reason is the question over asylum-seekers,” said a pensioner and former teacher who declined to be named.
“A million refugees have come here. There is money for them, but no money to bring pensions in the east to the same levels as those of the west,” he said, referring to the lower retirement payments that residents of former Communist states receive compared to those in the west.
Compared to other parts of Germany, the northeastern state hosts just a small proportion of migrants under a quota system based on states’ income and population — having taken in 25,000 asylum seekers last year.
Most of them have already decided to abandon the state, preferring to head “where there are jobs, people and shops,” said Frieder Weinhold, CDU candidate.