Dresden (Germany) (AFP) - Germany's far-right AfD party surged in elections in two ex-communist eastern states Sunday, reflecting anger over Chancellor Angela Merkel's migrant policy and a wealth gap 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell.
The Alternative for Germany became the second-strongest party in regional parliaments in both Saxony and Brandenburg, the state which surrounds the capital Berlin, said public television exit polls.
In Saxony, where the radical anti-Islam Pegida street movement was born, the AfD scored 28 percent, sharply up from 9.7 percent five years ago, broadcasters ARD and ZDF forecast.
And it won 24 percent in Brandenburg state, double its result in 2014, said the initial projections.
Saxony's top AfD candidate Joerg Urban spoke of a "historic day" while the party's leader in Brandenburg, Andreas Kalbitz, hailed the "tremendous success" and vowed "we are here to stay".
The outright winners in Saxony were Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), who scored 33 percent, while Brandenburg was held by the Social Democrats (SPD), who came first with 27 percent.
AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland said "we are satisfied in Brandenburg as well as in Saxony" where his party had "punished" Merkel's conservatives.
But he conceded that "yes, we are not yet the strongest force... We are working on it."
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a tweet congratulated the AfD, stating that "common sense is inexorably advancing in Europe!"
- 'Second-class citizens' -
Though broadly anticipated in pre-election surveys, the outcome delivered another slap to the fragile coalition government of Merkel's CDU and their junior partners the SPD.
All other parties had declared before the vote that they would not cooperate with the AfD, which will force the mainstream groups into new coalitions to achieve governing majorities.
The AfD, aside from railing against asylum-seekers and Islam, has also protested against plans to shutter coal mines to protect the climate and capitalised on resentment about perceived injustices since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
"Let's complete the change", it had vowed in the campaign, referring to the peaceful revolution that ended the one-party state and in 1990 brought national reunification.
The AfD has long co-opted the former pro-democracy chant "We are the people" and turned it against what it labels the "Merkel regime".
According to an ARD poll, 54 percent of voters in Saxony and 51 percent in Brandenburg believe that east Germans are still being treated as "second-class citizens".
Eastern Germany is home to several of the AfD's most extremist leaders, among them Bjoern Hoecke, who has labelled Berlin's Holocaust memorial a "monument of shame".
His close ally, Brandenburg's Kalbitz, a 46-year-old former paratrooper, has long had deep ties to right-wing extremist groups.
Der Spiegel weekly has reported that in 2007 Kalbitz joined known German neo-Nazis on a visit to Athens that came to police attention when a swastika flag was flown from a hotel balcony.
Kalbitz confirmed to the magazine that he joined the trip but insisted that the event "was not conducive to arousing my further interest or approval".
- Fragile coalition -
The AfD, formed initially as a eurosceptic group, now focuses mainly on anger over Germany's mass migrant influx since 2015 that brought over one million people.
Merkel, who also grew up in the east, had avoided campaigning on the ground ahead of Sunday's polls in the region, where she has in the past faced harsh abuse.
The veteran leader has already pledged to step down when her current term ends in 2021, but regional election upsets could speed up her government's demise.
A third election will be held on October 27 in the eastern state of Thuringia.
Political scientist Karl-Rudolf Korte of Duisburg University said the latest polls show a trend continuing: "Both mainstream parties, the CDU and SPD, keep shrinking.
"AfD voters dominate in the east, not the west, as we previously saw in national and European elections. The AfD has become part of everyday life in the east".