Supporters of Germany's new anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party have celebrated after winning support in three regional elections with results that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, however, suffered a major setback in the three key state polls on Sunday, apparently over her liberal refugee policy.
The CDU was defeated in two of the three states in regional elections, and scored a historic low 27 percent in its stronghold Baden-Wuerttemberg where it came in second place after the Greens.
The populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which had sparked outrage by suggesting that police may have to shoot at migrants to stop them entering the country, recorded double-digit support in the first elections they have stood for in all three regions.
"What an amazing evening," Andre Poggenburg, the AfD leader in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, said in a fiery speech in the state capital Magdeburg, calling the result "brilliant".
"We fought like lions for your land," he said, dismissing Merkel as "the worst chancellor in the history of Germany."
Formed three years ago in opposition to eurozone bailouts, the AfD has morphed into an anti-refugee party over the past year, kicking out its founder and seizing on a record influx of refugees to lure new voters and steal disaffected members of Merkel's conservatives.
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"[The people] fear that they will be the losers of the refugee crisis. I don't think that it's a real threat, but the people feel that it's a threat, and that's why they've voted for the anti-refugee party," Wolfgang Renzch, a political scientist in Germany, told Al Jazeera.
On Sunday the AfD won a shocking 24 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, to become the second-biggest party in the state parliament.
The AfD also performed better than polls predicted in the two other states, winning nearly 15 percent in the
prosperous southern region of Baden-Wurttemberg and more than 12 percent in Rhineland Palatinate,
a western wine-making state.
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Exit polls showed that the AfD drew most of its support from people who previously hadn't voted for a party, but they also drew thousands of voters from Merkel's conservatives, particularly in Baden-Wurttemberg.
The AfD narrowly missed the five percent hurdle needed to enter the federal parliament in 2013, but is now represented in the state assemblies of half of Germany's 16 states.
While populist, anti-immigrant parties have thrived for years in other European countries, Germany has
been an exception, in part because opposition to far-right ideologies runs deep because of the country's Nazi past.
The refugee crisis has changed all that. More than a million refugees entered Germany last year, unsettling many Germans and turning the AfD into a force on the national stage almost overnight.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies