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Why the far-right AfD's victory in an east German district is so significant

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AFP/The Local - [email protected]
Why the far-right AfD's victory in an east German district is so significant
Campaign posters for Robert Sesselmann (AfD) and opponent Jürgen Köpper (CDU) in Sonneberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Martin Schutt

Germany's far-right AfD won its first district election on Sunday, a further boost to the anti-immigration party as it surges to record highs in opinion polls.

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Robert Sesselmann, a lawyer and regional lawmaker, came out on top in a closely watched runoff vote for district administrator in Sonneberg in the central state of Thuringia, near the border with Bavaria.

Sesselmann took 52.8 percent of the vote, according to the electoral office.

The victory came despite appeals from mainstream parties for voters to rally behind the incumbent candidate, Jürgen Köpper from the conservative CDU, who managed to gain 47.2 percent of the vote.

With only around 57,000 people, Sonneberg is one of Germany's smaller districts, but the landmark victory makes it the first to be run by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

"Robert Sesselmann has made history," tweeted AfD co-chief Alice Weidel.

Who are the AfD and why are they polling well in Germany?

Created in 2013 as an anti-euro outfit before morphing into an anti-Islam, anti-immigration party, the AfD has benefited from growing discontent with Chancellor Olaf Scholz's three-party coalition, made up of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) amid concerns about inflation and the affordability of the government's climate plans.

READ ALSO: Far-right AfD at new high as climate issues split Germany

High immigration to Germany also remains a key voter concern.

The milestone comes as recent surveys put support for the AfD at a record 18 to 20 percent, neck-and-neck with Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats and behind only the conservative CDU/CSU bloc.

Germany's best-selling Bild newspaper called Sesselmann's win a political "earthquake" and "a remarkable success for the ultra-right party".

Thuringia's interior minister Georg Maier, from the Social Democrats, called the outcome "an alarm bell for all democratic forces", according to Bild.

The local election win - and what it could mean on a broader scale - is likely to become a talking point on Monday in the German Bundestag.

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Will the AfD likely see further successes around Germany?

The AfD is polling even better in the former communist eastern states of Thuringia, Brandenburg and Saxony, which will see regional elections next year where the AfD is hoping to score major breakthroughs.

"Unless there is a dramatic change in mood, next year's state and local elections could turn into a triumph for the AfD," Dresden-based political scientist Hans Vorländer told DPA.

Vorländer said that the AfD would not govern at the state level due to a lack of coalition partners. In Germany, where coalition governments are the norm, mainstream parties have always ruled out forming an alliance with the AfD.

However, it's also no longer possible to completely dismiss the party, he said.

"It is becoming increasingly difficult to make politics against the AfD or to win elections against the AfD," said Vorländer, the director of the Center for Constitutional and Democracy Studies at the Technical University of Dresden.

Vorländer spoke of a mixture of different motives among voters. The AfD has been deeply rooted in many regions of eastern Germany for years and in some cases has a potential of more than 30 percent, he said.

Many people have conservative, right-wing populist, right-wing nationalist attitudes, Vorländer said. Coupled with governmental dissatisfaction, "this is fertile ground for the AfD", he added.

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Part of ongoing controversies

The AfD's regional party leader in Thuringia is the far-right firebrand Björn Höcke, whose past statements on Germany's Nazi past have caused outrage.

Höcke, considered an extremist by German intelligence services, has called Berlin's Holocaust monument a "memorial of shame" and urged a "180-degree shift" in the country's culture of remembrance.

The AfD stunned the political establishment when it took around 13 percent of votes in the 2017 general elections, catapulting its lawmakers into the German parliament.

It slid to around 10 percent in the 2021 federal election.

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