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German rightwing populists have suffered a surprise defeat in a widely watched regional election that has followed a fortnight of nationwide protests.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party lost a district election in the state of Thuringia on Sunday evening, which polls had earlier indicated was likely to be secured as its second ever local government mandate amid growing support for anti-immigration policies.
The election, in the Saale-Orla district, was a run-off between the AfD’s Uwe Thrum and Christian Herrgott of the mainstream conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of former chancellor Angela Merkel.
Thuringia is considered a stronghold for the AfD. Statewide elections are due to be held in September. The AfD is expected to win them.
The party, which according to the latest polling has the support of over one in five Germans, elected its first Landrat — the equivalent of the head of a UK county council — in the district of Sonneberg in June.
In the January 14 first round of the elections in nearby Saale-Orla, the AfD’s Thrum won 45.7 per cent of the vote compared with 33.3 for the CDU’s Herrgott, leading many to expect a second victory for the party.
But a burgeoning scandal for the AfD over the party’s connections to ethno-nationalist extremists has been dominating the headlines.
On January 10, AfD politicians were revealed to have held meetings with highly controversial rightwing ideologues in a villa near Berlin and discussed plans for the mass deportation of immigrants, including those with German citizenship.
For the last two weeks, hundreds of thousands of Germans have turned out across the country to demonstrate against the AfD and rightwing extremism — accusing the party of flirting with fascism and fuelling calls for it to be banned.
In Sunday’s second round in Saale-Orla, Herrgott achieved 52.4 per cent compared with Thrum’s 47.6 per cent. Turnout was just under 70 per cent — more than twice the level seen in the last elections in 2018.
Mainstream parties have rallied together to try to block the rise of the AfD in recent days. Thuringia’s interior minister — a member of the Social Democratic party — even told voters in Saale-Orla to support the CDU to stop Thrum.
Saale-Orla in south-east Thuringia borders the states of Bavaria and Saxony and has around 66,000 eligible voters.
The district is one of the poorest in the country: the average wage is just €29,000 according to the German state statistics agency, and around 40 per cent of the working population is on the minimum wage.