POTSDAM (Germany) • The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party sees Chancellor Angela Merkel's struggle to form a new government as proof of its growing power to upend the country's political order, a top party official told Agence France-Presse.
Parliamentary group leader Alexander Gauland said in an interview that the current turmoil showed that the four-year-old AfD had succeeded in its primary goal in September's general election.
"It's all downhill for Merkel now and that is partly our achievement," Mr Gauland said, sipping a glass of rose wine at a lakeside Italian restaurant in the eastern city of Potsdam. "Her time is up - we want her to leave the political stage."
AfD campaigned on the slogan "Merkel must go", railing against her decision to let in more than one million mainly Muslim asylum seekers since 2015. Its election score was nearly 13 per cent, snatching millions of votes from mainstream parties and entering Parliament for the first time with nearly 100 seats in the Bundestag Lower House.
Although Dr Merkel won a fourth term, she has thus far been unable to cobble together a ruling majority - an unprecedented impasse in German post-war politics. The crisis could trigger snap elections.
Yet despite polls indicating that the gridlock could lift the AfD to an even stronger result, Mr Gauland, 76, seemed reserved about heading back into electoral battle.
"It is not up to us to call new elections and we aren't asking for them, but we are prepared for them," he said. Polls indicate that both Dr Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the rival Social Democrats would shed support if voters were called back to the ballot box.
With his trademark tweed jackets and reading glasses, Mr Gauland cultivates the look of an English country gentleman and expresses pride in the support his anti-immigration message has got from pockets of the British right-wing. In May, he sparked outrage by saying while German fans love star footballer Jerome Boateng, who was born in Berlin to a German mother and Ghanaian father, "they don't want to have a Boateng as a neighbour".
Mr Gauland, a former CDU member, acknowledged that using identity as a rallying cry meant playing to deep anxieties and resentments, particularly in the former communist east, about a multicultural Germany.
"We have always said that we give a voice to people's fears," he said. "We don't want the country to change to such an extent that it can't be turned back."