Angela Merkel's party fell into third place in local elections Sunday evening in a sign of brewing trouble over the chancellor's now-controversial refugee policy, German politicians and experts said.
The chancellor's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received 19% of the vote in the local elections in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where Merkel has her constituency.
The Social Democrats (SDP) party won 30.2% of the vote, but the Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) party received 21.9% of the vote and placed second overall.
It comes almost a year to the day that Merkel publicly opened Germany's door to refugees following photographs of dead toddler Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach appeared. Since then, the country has welcomed more than 1 million refugees.
The move was internationally celebrated, but in the past few months there have been notable instances of rising anti-immigrant sentiment across the country – including in Merkel's home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
The small state has taken fewer refugees than other similarly sized regions in Germany. Roughly 25,000 were settled there, the Daily Telegraph reported, and only 3.7% of the population is of non-German background, one of the lowest percentages in the country.
Despite the small number of refugees in the state, German newspaper Tages Spiegel published a cartoon summing up the mood:
The AfD, founded three years ago and now with a foothold in nine state parliaments, campaigned on a strongly anti-immigration platform. Posters urged locals concerned by mass immigration, criminality, and pension security to vote for the AfD "so that Germany is not destroyed."
Martin Koschkar, a political scientist at Rostock University in the state's largest town, said the party had effectively used negative sentiments towards refugees ahead of the election. "The AfD benefits from this polarized debate," he told the BBC.
His opinion was supported by political scientist Gero Neugebauer, based at Berlin’s Free University, who told The Guardian people "will see this as the start of the ‘Kanzlerdämmerung’ [twilight of the chancellor]."
Local AfD leader Leif-Erik Holm, a Berlin-based radio presenter, described his party's lead over the CDU as the "icing on the cake."
“Maybe [this] is the beginning of the end of Merkel’s time as chancellor,” he said.
Frauke Petry, co-leader of the AfD, told Reuters the result was a "slap in the face" for Merkel.
"The voters made a clear statement against Merkel's disastrous immigration policies," she said. "This put her in her place."
Bild, the country's top-selling tabloid, went so far as to describe the result (the lowest the CDU ever achieved in the state) as the "Meck-Pomm horror."
And German politicians also weighed in: CDU politician Wolfgang Bosbach told the BBC the result of Merkel's immigration policy had "put the wind in the AfD's sails."
Lorenz Caffier, the CDU candidate who lost his Mecklenburg-Vorpommern seat but who had campaigned against the burqa, told DW his party needed to change course. "The refugee question was decisive," he said.
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has a sparse rural population of roughly 1.6 million, and has seen poor employment in the past — although The Guardian reported that last year the state recorded the highest employment statistics and GDP since reunification.
A breakdown of votes showed that the west of the state, towards wealthier Hamburg, went for the SDP, while the east of the state came out for the AfD.
But it was not only Merkel's CDU party that suffered. The SPD, Left, and Greens lost 14% of the vote to the AfD, according to The Guardian's Berlin correspondent.
The AfD also profited from previously apathetic citizens. Turnout rose from 51.5% to 61%, according to the Financial Times. The party pulled votes from hardline right-wing party National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), which fell below the required 5% for the first time in a decade in the region. The Green party also failed to make the required mark, achieving 4.8% of the vote. As a result, neither party will be represented in the state assembly.
However, the CDU has weathered similarly dire results before. In 2012, ahead of the 2013 election, Merkel's party was expected to perform badly. Instead, the CDU achieved its best result in 20 years – almost sweeping the board across Germany.
CDU federal General Secretary Peter Tauber labelled the result "bitter" to reporters. But he said it would not affect the chancellor's chances for a fourth consecutive federal term, ahead of national elections in 2017.
Merkel, currently in China for the G20 Summit, admitted that "many people do not have our confidence regarding the refugee question."