SCHWERIN (Germany) • Chancellor Angela Merkel's party braced for a backlash at state polls yesterday, while anti-migrant populists were poised for major gains a year after the German leader opened the borders to refugees.
Around 1.33 million voters are electing a new regional Parliament for the north-eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which is also home to Dr Merkel's constituency, Stralsund.
The polls come exactly a year after the German leader made the momentous decision to let in tens of thousands of Syrian and other migrants marooned in eastern European countries.
Although she won praise at first, the mood has since turned, giving way to fears over how Europe's biggest economy will manage to integrate the million people who arrived last year alone.
Her decision has left her increasingly isolated in Europe, and exposed her to heavy criticism at home, including from her conservative allies.
Right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has campaigned heavily against Dr Merkel's liberal refugee policy, is expected to record strong support at the polls.
Opinion polls suggest that it might even unseat the German leader's party, Christian Democratic Union (CDU), from second place, after the Social Democrats (SDP).
In the sprawling farming and coastal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania - Germany's poorest and least populous - the issue of refugees and integration has also become the deciding factor for one in three voters.
"I am voting AfD. The main reason is the question over asylum-seekers," said a pensioner and former teacher who declined to be named.
"A million refugees have come here. There is money for them, but no money to bring pensions in the east to the same levels as those of the west," he said, referring to the lower retirement payments that residents of former communist states receive compared with those in the west.
Illustrating the political damage to Dr Merkel over her policy, a survey published last Thursday showed that CDU was expected to garner 22 per cent at the polls - only as much as the anti-migrant upstart AfD.
The SDP - which had topped the vote in the last polls in 2011 - meanwhile, were predicted to win around 28 per cent at the elections, two weeks before capital Berlin holds its state polls.
Days ahead of yesterday's vote, Dr Merkel urged the population to reject the AfD.
"The more the people who go to vote, the less the percentage won by some parties that, in my view, have no solution for problems and which are built mainly around a protest - often with hate," she told broadcaster NDR in an interview.
The polls closed at 1600 GMT (12am Singapore time today) and first result estimates were to be published shortly after.