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Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a humiliating defeat in German regional elections on her home turf on Sunday as voters turned their backs on her liberal refugee policy and gave the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party a political triumph.
A triumphant AfD pushed the chancellor's center-right Christian Democrats into third place in the vote in rural Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, with both coming behind the Social Democrats, the region's dominant political grouping.
"We are writing history in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern," said Leif-Erik Holm, the AfD's lead candidate. "Perhaps today is the beginning of the end of the chancellorship of Angela Merkel."
Peter Tauber, CDU general secretary, blamed the "bitter" result on widespread public "discontent and protest" at Merkel's refugee policy. A CDU official said the party would examine the result and hit back at the AfD's "simple, stupid slogans".
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The result in the region where the chancellor has her parliamentary seat, mark a new low in 62-year-old Merkel's fraught struggle to retain public backing for her refugee policy. Protesting voters are abandoning the mainstream parties in droves and turning the AfD into Germany's most successful right-wing party since the second world war.
Successive regional election setbacks are undermining the chancellor's authority and diverting her attention from a heavy international agenda, including the Brexit vote, the Ukraine crisis and difficult relations with Turkey.
The AfD, formed only in 2013, took 20.8 per cent of the vote for the state legislature in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. It took support from other parties and brought out non-voters, helping to raise the turnout from 51.5 per cent to 61 per cent.
The CDU, meanwhile, fell from 23 per cent in 2011 to 19 per cent, their worst result yet in the state.
The Social Democratic party, Merkel's junior coalition partner, fared somewhat better than had been predicted but still plunged from 35.6 per cent to 30.6 per cent.
In a crumb of comfort for mainstream politicians, the AfD failed to beat its best previous result — the 24 per cent it won in March in Sachsen Anhalt. The AfD's advance in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern also drove out of the regional assembly the neo-Nazi NPD, which saw its vote drop below 5 per cent.
The AfD has no chance of taking power in Schwerin, the regional capital, as other parties have refused to co-operate. The SPD is expected to preserve its existing coalition with the CDU.
But the established parties retaining power in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern will do little to mitigate the political shockwaves created by the advance of the AfD in a country where the Nazi past long made voters shun the right. While the region is poor and small (with a population of 1.6 million out the country's 81 million), the AfD has extended the string of regional successes scored since Merkel launched her refugees-welcome policy last summer, which generated widespread fears about the impact of immigration.
The AfD is now represented in nine of Germany's 16 regions and is developing momentum for future regional polls, including in Berlin later this month, and for Bundestag elections in autumn 2017. Scoring around 12 per cent in national opinion polls, it is widely expected to be Germany's first right-wing party to enter the national parliament since 1945.
The AfD has done particularly well in the former Communist East German regions, such as Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Sachsen Anhalt, where voters tend to be poorer than in the west, more skeptical about mainstream parties and less enamored of globalization, including migration.
Even though Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has housed only 23,000 refugees from the latest 1 million-strong wave, many residents told reporters during the campaign that they feared the social changes seen in Germany's multicultural large cities, such as Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.