Three German states have voted in regional elections seen as the first political test for Chancellor Angela Merkel since the country saw an influx of refugees.
Sunday’s vote count is expected to see the three-year-old Alternative for Germany (AfD) party perform strongly amid debate over Merkel’s liberal approach to accepting the refugees.
Exit polls suggest setbacks for Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union party and her partners in the national government, the centre-left Social Democrats.
About 12.7 million people are eligible to vote for state legislatures in three diverse regions: the economic powerhouse Baden-Wuerttemberg in the southwest, neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, and relatively poor Saxony-Anhalt in the ex-communist east.
Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Saxony-Anhalt’s capital of Magdeburg, said that, according to AfD, the refugee policy of the government was not the right answer to the crisis.
“But five years ago, this party did not exist so it is hard to make any kind of inference what support they may have,” he said.
Germany registered nearly 1.1 million people as asylum seekers last year as Merkel insisted “we will manage” the challenge.
While her government has moved to tighten asylum rules, she still insists on a pan-European solution to the crisis, ignoring demands from some conservative allies for a national cap on the number of refugees.
“All those who want a constructive solution, who want to move things ahead, AfD is completely the wrong party,” Merkel said.
A failure to win at least two of the three states would be a blow for Merkel as she tries to use her status as Europe’s most powerful leader to push through an EU deal with Turkey to stem the tide of asylum seekers.
Strong performances would boost AfD’s hopes of entering the national parliament next year, but it remains to be seen how it will perform in the long term.
It entered five state legislatures and the European Parliament in its initial guise as a primarily anti-euro party before splitting and then rebounding in the refugee crisis.