Justin Huggler, Berlin
Almost exactly a year after Mrs Merkel opened Germany’s borders to more than 1m asylum-seekers, her party was beaten into third place in her own parliamentary constituency, according to preliminary exit polls.
The anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD) surged ahead of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in initial projections with around 21 per cent of the vote.
If confirmed, the result will mean that a far-Right party is once again a force to be reckoned with in German politics.
“Perhaps this is the beginning of the end for Chancellor Merkel,” Leif-Erik Holm, the AfD’s regional leader, said as the results became clear.
His party, which campaigned on an openly anti-Muslim and anti-migrant platform, appeared to have beaten the Christian Democrats into third place with around 19 per cent of the vote.
The elections to the state legislature in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, one of Germany’s 16 federal states, will not affect Mrs Merkel’s commanding majority in the federal parliament.
But they will be seen as a key indicator of the public mood ahead of general elections scheduled to be held next year.
For the chancellor, the result will be seen as a damaging defeat in a state her party once dominated, and where the parliamentary constituency she has represented for the last 25 years lies.
The election was technically won by her coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), who came first with around 30 per cent of the vote. But the SPD also suffered heavy losses in the state, and it is the AfD that will be seen as the real winner.
The far-Right party, which was only founded in 2013 was competing in the state for the first time.
It has now won seats in nine of Germany’s state parliaments in just three years, and will be hoping to add a tenth in elections in Berlin in two weeks.
The party campaigned on an openly anti-migrant and anti-Muslim platform, pledging to close Germany’s borders and declaring Islam “does not belong” in German society.
Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, part of the former communist east, and today Germany’s poorest and most sparsely populated state, rarely features in national politics.
But this year’s elections have come under intense scrutiny as Mrs Merkel battles to withstand the public backlash against her controversial refugee policy.
The chancellor was not in the state for the results on Sunday, instead opting to play the role of international stateswoman as she travelled to China for the G20 talks.
But she repeatedly found time to travel to the state for campaign appearances in the final weeks before voting, in a clear sign she was nervous at the threat from the AfD.
“There are people who are good at provoking, but that doesn’t do anything for the state,” she told a final rally appearance on Saturday.
“The more people who go to vote, the less votes will be won by parties who, in my view, offer no solutions to our problems and are built mainly around protest — often with hate,” she told the NDR broadcaster in an interview.
But her pleas appear to have fallen on deaf ears as people flocked to vote for the AfD in an elections which saw a high turnout of 61 per cent — almost ten per cent more than at the previous state elections in 2011.
It was clear that Mrs Merkel’s party suffered at the hands of voters unhappy with her refugee policy.
Mecklenburg-West Pomerania has taken in fewer asylum-seekers than most German states — only 25,000 of the 1.1m who arrived in 2015 — but voters expressed their anger at the policy during the weeks of campaigning.
Mrs Merkel’s national approval ratings have fallen to a five-year low of 45 per cent, and she is yet to declare whether she will lead her party into next year’s elections.
For the AfD, the result is further confirmation that the party has arrived as a force to be reckoned with in German politics.
“I was hoping for a good result. This is a huge performance and a fantastic result for our young party,” Beatrix von Storch, one of the party’s leaders, told Bild newspaper.
Recent controversies do not seem to have discouraged voters. Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s leaders, was widely accused of racism after he said no German would want to live next door to Jerome Boateng, a black player on the German national football team.