Anti-migrant German populist party surges in local polls

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Berlin (AFP) - Germany's right-wing populist AfD party, which has railed against a record migrant influx, made strong gains in local polls in the western state of Hesse, results showed Monday, ahead of key state elections this weekend.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third-biggest party in Hesse, with support reaching 13.2 percent, according to initial results.

The eurosceptic party, which sparked a storm in January by suggesting police may have to shoot at migrants at the borders, was eroding support for Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and junior coalition partner the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Support for the CDU fell 5.5 percent to 28.2 percent, although it still came in as the strongest party, just ahead of the SPD which polled 28 percent, down 3.5 percent from the previous elections.

The AfD has so far made its biggest gains in formerly communist eastern states that still lag western Germany in jobs and prosperity.

The result was "very alarming", the vice-chairwoman of the SPD's national parliamentary group, Eva Hoegl, told ARD public television.

Manfred Pentz, the CDU's general secretary in Hesse, acknowledged that voters were seeking to punish Merkel and her party over her liberal refugee policies.

"The protest is coming at the expense of established parties and benefitting the AfD," he said.

Merkel herself had harsh words for the AfD, which she described in an interview with Bild am Sonntag as a "party that does not bring society together and offers no appropriate solutions to problems, but only stokes prejudices and divisions".

Misgiving is growing in Germany over Merkel's refusal to put a cap on the number of refugees entering the country, after 1.1 million arrived in 2015 alone. The populist party has been quick to capitalise on the mood.

In some localities where the AfD did not field candidates, voters even turned to the neo-Nazi NPD, which is currently fighting at the constitutional court a bid by the upper house of parliament to have it banned.

The far-right party polled around 14 percent in Buedingen, a town of 21,000 inhabitants which has one of the biggest asylum shelters in Hesse.

State-wide, the party obtained 0.3 percent of the vote.

The AfD, which began life as an anti-euro party, now has seats in five regional parliaments and is represented in the European Parliament.

It is eyeing its first seats in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt in polls on Sunday.

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