German voters dealt a stinging rebuke to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her open-door refugee policy in three state elections Sunday, delivering historic gains for an upstart anti-immigrant party and showing how the migration crisis is scrambling politics in Europe’s largest economy.
The populist Alternative for Germany, which focused its campaign on opposition to Ms. Merkel’s migrant policy, won nearly a quarter of the vote in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. The result—several percentage points higher than recent polls had suggested—represents the party’s best total in a regional election since its founding three years ago.
The party, known as the AfD, also won parliamentary seats in two former West German states, giving it representation in eight of the country’s 16 state legislatures. That strengthens the AfD’s status as a significant political force to the right of Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc—a turning point that her Christian Democrats long tried to prevent.
At the AfD’s election-night celebration in Berlin, supporters chanted “Merkel must go!” after the results started to come in.
“We have a very clear position on refugee policy: We don’t want to take in any refugees,” AfD deputy chairman Alexander Gauland said on German television. “All who voted for us stand behind this policy.”
The votes are unlikely to have an immediate impact on Ms. Merkel’s migration policy even as they put more pressure on her to change course. The chancellor has made it clear she intends to stick to her strategy of reducing the number of arrivals by working with Turkey rather than closing the German border, a position confirmed by a government spokesman on Monday.
“The Federal Government of Germany intends to continue to follow the course of its refugee policy, at home and abroad,” said Steffen Seibert.
Key decisions on migration are made on the federal level, not by the states.
But the results laid bare the extent to which the migration crisis has polarized German society. Left-of-center proponents of a welcoming refugee policy also recorded win Sunday, even as Ms. Merkel’s conservatives suffered. Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union lost two close races, falling to the center-left Greens in Baden-Württemberg and the center-left Social Democrats in Rhineland-Palatinate.
In the traditionally conservative state of Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany’s economic powerhouses, the refugee-friendly Greens surged to first place behind their popular incumbent premier, Winfried Kretschmann. Ms. Merkel’s CDU failed to win first place in the southwestern state for the first time since World War II. The AfD, meanwhile, won 15%—the best postwar result for a populist or far-right party in the state.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the other western state, incumbent state Premier Malu Dreyer of the Social Democrats beat a rising star in the CDU, Julia Klöckner. In the campaign, Ms. Klöckner took a tougher line on migrants than Ms. Dreyer did.
In Saxony-Anhalt, which suffers from one of Germany’s highest unemployment rates, the AfD’s capture of 24% of the vote was poised to upend typical political alliances. While Ms. Merkel’s CDU came in first, the results suggested that the party would need to ally with both the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens to form a government.
“The fact is: the democrats of the middle must now stand together,” said Saxony-Anhalt State Premier Reiner Haseloff, of the CDU, in a television interview. “We will build a stable government of the middle.”