Relief for Angela Merkel as AfD held at bay in German regional elections

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There was relief for Angela Merkel on Sunday as the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) failed to make a widely forecast breakthrough in key regional elections.

The AfD made significant gains in elections in two states in the former communist east, but fell short of winning first place amid a late surge for the established parties.

Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) held onto first place in the state of Saxony with 32 per cent according to initial projections, ahead of the AfD on 27.5 per cent.

Her main coalition partners, the centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD), came first in the state of Brandenburg, with 27.5 per cent ahead of the AfD’s 22.5 per cent.

“It is good that the people of Brandenburg have said we do not want the far-Right extremists of the AfD to win,” Lars Klingbeil, the SPD party chairman said.

“The friendly face of Saxony has prevailed,” Michael Kretschmer, the CDU regional leader said. “This is a great day for our state.”

“Our slogan was ‘Twenty per cent plus’. We have achieved that and are very satisfied in both Brandenburg and Saxony,” Alexander Gauland, the AfD leader, said. “But yes, we did not come first. There is still a piece missing and the work starts now.”

DRESDEN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 01: Joerg Meuthen (R), leader of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party and Joerg Urban (L), main candidate of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) react to the result of the state elections in Saxony on September 1, 2019 in Dresden, Germany. Saxony and the neighboring state of Brandenburg, both states in eastern Germany, are holding state election amidst a strong growth in support in pre-election polls for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Greens Party at the expense of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) and the German Social Democrats (SPD). (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

The AfD celebrated significant gains despite failing to win first place in either state Credit: Carsten Koall/Getty Images Europe

The AfD led in the Brandenburg polls for much of the campaign and was widely expected to win first place in a regional election for the first time.

But it was held at bay by a late swing towards the established parties amid a dramatic rise in turnout.

The result will ease the immediate pressure on Mrs Merkel and her chosen successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has endured a difficult first year in charge.

But the CDU still suffered its worst ever result in its former stronghold of Saxony, and now faces a difficult task building a new coalition in the fractured regional parliament.

The election leaves the CDU divided, after Mr Kretschmer pulled the party back in the polls by distancing himself from Mrs Merkel’s national government, and a right-wing faction held its own separate victory celebrations last night.

The SPD was neck-and-neck with the AfD in the Brandenburg polls right up until voting opened, and the party was celebrating an unexpected comeback last night.

But it still suffered significant losses at the AfD’s hands in a state it has ruled since reunification, and will now need two partners to build a new regional coalition.

The AfD was hoping for a strong result in its heartlands in the former communist east to offset a disappointing 12 months which saw it come fourth in the European elections and fail to make a breakthrough in the more populous west.