BERLIN • Germans voted in three regional state elections yesterday, with the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party looking to profit from popular angst about Chancellor Angela Merkel's immigration policy.
Migration is the hot topic as many people worry how Germany will cope with an influx, totalling more than a million last year alone, that has come to define Dr Merkel's leadership, and on which she has staked her reputation.
Dr Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been losing support to the AfD, which has profited from the growing unease.
"There is only one path, a Merkel unity path, and people want an alternative, they want a real opposition and we want to take on that task," Mr Andre Poggenburg, AfD leader in Saxony-Anhalt, in former East Germany, told reporters after voting.
A failure to win at least two of the three states would be a blow for Dr Merkel just as she is trying to use her status as Europe's most powerful leader to seal an European Union (EU) deal with Turkey to stem the tide of migrants.
Polls indicate that the CDU will remain the biggest party in Saxony-Anhalt, but the AfD could grab almost a fifth of the votes there and surpass the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Dr Merkel's coalition partner in Berlin.
In the west, the CDU could lose to the Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg, where it is currently the largest party. And in Rhineland-Palatinate, where the CDU came a close second last time, the race is too close to call.
A poor showing for the CDU would be untimely for Dr Merkel, who needs to push through a deal with Turkey at a March 17-18 summit to resolve the migrant crisis .
She alarmed many EU leaders last week by foisting the plan on them and demanding their support.
In Baden-Wuerttemberg in south-western Germany, the candidate fielded by CDU to reclaim control of the region from the Greens admitted that he felt some jitters as he turned out to vote.
"Of course, I feel a healthy nervousness, but I am incredibly confident," Mr Guido Wolf told reporters in the town of Tuttlingen.
Baden-Wuerttemberg was a CDU stronghold for more than 50 years before turning to a Greens-led coalition with the SPD in 2011 after Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster. Polls show the Greens' state premier, Mr Winfried Kretschmann, 67, is poised to pip Mr Wolf.
Rhineland-Palatinate, a wine- growing region, is shaping up as the pivotal swing state.
The CDU came a close second last time, and the race this time round is too close to call.
CDU candidate Julia Kloeckner, a 43-year-old former German "wine queen", who has positioned herself as a candidate to succeed Dr Merkel one day, has seen her lead shrink, and one poll last week showed her narrowly behind SPD incumbent Malu Dreyer.
One of the parties draining support from Dr Merkel's CDU is the AfD.
Already represented in five of Germany's 16 regional Parliaments, it looked set to burst into three more yesterday, campaigning on slogans such as "Secure the borders" and "Stop the asylum chaos".
The AfD has benefited from growing concern among Germans about the migrant numbers and the country's ability to integrate vast numbers of people from different cultures.
If the AfD performs as well as the polls indicate, the coalition partners may need to team up with a third party to assemble a majority - one of a number of potential "firsts" for German politics as voter loyalties splinter.
Asked how she will prepare for the election results, Dr Merkel told a rally last Saturday: "I will cross my fingers."