SCHWERIN, Germany — An anti-immigration party made a strong showing at the expense of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party in her home district Sunday, a repudiation of her open-door policy for migrants.
Official results showed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) came in second with 20.8% of the vote, ahead of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) at 19%, the party's worst showing since German reunification a quarter-century ago.
The center-left Social Democrats came out on top with 30.6% of the vote.
Merkel's home base of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is currently governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and her conservative Christian Democrats, the same partnership that runs the federal government.
Alternative for Germany had made as its main campaign issue Merkel's decision to allow more than 1 million war refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to settle in Germany in the past year.
Pre-election polls showed voters are worried about the influx, especially following terror attacks linked to migrants this summer and several instances of mass sexual assaults at public gatherings on New Year's Eve that police blamed on recent arrivals.
National Alternative for Germany leader Frauke Petry celebrated “a blow to Angela Merkel.” Local AfD leader Leif-Erik Holm told supporters: “Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship today.”
Peter Tauber, the Christian Democrats’ general secretary, acknowledged the impact of the refugee issue. "This result, and the strong performance of AfD, is bitter for ... everyone in our party,” he said.
"I voted for the AfD because it can't go on like this anymore with the growing number of refugees," Anne Schuster, 32, said after she voted in Schwerin, the state's capital. "The current government promises so much but nothing gets done."
Anita Maya, 27, a teacher in the state capital here, said she does not agree with the AfD's anti-immigration stance, "but I see why people here like them: They have clear answers. It's funny that so many people feel so strongly about the refugee crisis, because I don't think our day-to-day lives have really been changed by it here."
Some who traditionally shun the CDU said they support Merkel's policy toward the refugees. "I don’t like the CDU, but I think that it’s right what Angela Merkel is doing with the refugees," said Robert Ackerman, 29, a teacher here. "It's our responsibility to help and she is doing good work."
Incumbent state leader Erwin Sellering of the Social Democratic Party ran on a platform that focused on sustaining the region's good economy.
"The most important thing is jobs," he said Sunday. "Unemployment has significantly decreased. My goal is to further strengthen our economy in the next year so that new jobs are created and maintained."
CDU candidate and Mecklenburg-Pomerania Interior Minister Lorenz Caffier took a harder stance on immigration to differentiate himself from Merkel. He recently called for a ban on burquas, the full-body covering worn by some Muslim women. There currently are no such restrictions in Germany.
“Total veiling should be forbidden throughout Germany,” Caffier told Bild newspaper. “It is a roadblock for integration and is unconstitutional."
The vote came as Merkel's party is losing favor with voters. Only 45% of Germans backed the chancellor, according to a recent poll by German broadcaster ARD.
"Germany needs to get tougher on rape. It's horrible that the Afghani refugees could do that to a girl and still walk up to her on the street," Wolfram Burow, 57, who works in property management, said about a suspect on trial for rape in Cologne's mass New Year's Eve attacks.
"Angela Merkel’s 'we can manage it' policy is nonsense," he added. "She’s not doing anything except creating chaos for us to deal with. I voted for the SPD to see if they could do something to stop it."
Joerg Forbrig of the think tank German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said that even though Merkel is from East Germany, it's not enough of a connection to overcome the discontent of voters here.
“We see differences especially in political culture between the east and west. This is something the AfD is capitalizing on,” Forbrig said. “It does not have so much to do with economic deprivation because Mecklenburg-Pomerania has been successful in the last couple of years. It has to do with an incomplete transformation of society and political culture in East Germany.”
Despite more than 25 years of reunification, there is still a cultural divide between east and west Germans. Anti-immigrant sentiment is stronger in the east, where a majority of attacks on refugee homes have occurred.
Even in the west, Merkel and her party face trouble. And there is a growing rift between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), whose leader, Horst Seehofer, has denounced the chancellor's immigrant policy for “breaking Europe.”
Analyst Forbrig said Merkel is running out of time to mend her image before national elections in the fall of 2017.
“If she is to fully recover before the elections, this recovery has to start now, but things are not going well for her,” Forbrig said. “Since the beginning of the year, the damage that the refugee flows have done to her political position has been recovered, but then came the series of attacks committed by mostly people with migrant backgrounds, which set her back.”
There are five more state parliamentary elections coming up before the federal elections, including Berlin later this month.
Forbrig sees large gains ahead for the AfD in Berlin, where it is likely to siphon votes from the Left Party, which is traditionally strong in the German capital.
“We are looking at a pretty turbulent year till the elections,” Forbrig said. “No one can really make a prediction at this stage. Merkel herself just said that she will not declare her candidacy until early next year. She is clearly trying to buy time.”
This is more good news. If Merkel is losing support in her home state, her chances of reelection are in question. It's like if Shrillary lost the New York and Arkansas (her home states) primaries, there would be no way she could win in November.
The German people have had enough and are fighting back. National Socialism is on the rise. If we can take back our Fatherlands, then maybe we have a chance to make a difference here in this country.
Also, part of our future success in America will depend on who wins in November and if they fail or succeed in office. Personally, I hope Trump wins, and then fails. People will have put so much faith into Trump and if he lets them down, they'll be so disillusioned they'll be more open to National Socialism.
The election is less than two months away. It could be a watershed event for us. We won't have long to wait.