BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats fell to third place in a state election on Sunday behind the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, TV projections showed.
In a stinging defeat for Merkel in her home district one year ahead of federal elections, the upstart AfD won 21.4 per cent of the vote in their first election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern by campaigning hard against the chancellor's policies on refugees, according to a projection by ZDF TV.
"This isn't pretty for us," said Michael Grosse-Groehmer, one of Merkel's top deputies in parliament in Berlin in a ZDF TV interview. "Those who voted for the AfD were sending a message of protest."
The election took place exactly a year after Merkel's decision to open Germany's borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees and the discontent in the state was palpable.
"This is a slap in the face for Merkel - not only in Berlin but also in her home state," said Frauke Petry, co-leader of the AfD. "The voters made a clear statement against Merkel's disastrous immigration policies. This put her in her place."
The SPD, which has ruled the rural state on the Baltic coast with the CDU as junior coalition partners since 2006, won 30.2 per cent of the vote, down from 35.6 per cent in the last election in 2011. The CDU won 19.8 per cent, down from 23 per cent in 2011, and its worst result ever in the state, the broadcaster said.
The far-left Left Party won 12.5 per cent, down from 18.4 per cent five years ago, while the pro-environment Greens won 5 per cent, down from 8.7 per cent. The far-right NPD was knocked out of the state assembly, falling below the 5 per cent threshold for the first time since 2006 with 3.2 per cent, down from 6 per cent in 2011.
Despite losing support, the SPD (24 seats) and the CDU (16) won enough seats to be able to continue their grand coalition in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern with the AfD as the second-largest bloc in the 71-seat state assembly with 18 seats. The SPD, which could also form a coalition with the Left and Green parties, said it was leaving its options open.
Voters already punished Merkel in three state elections in March, voting in droves for the AfD and rejecting Merkel's Christian Democrats.
Founded in 2013, the AfD now has won seats in nine of the 16 state assemblies across the country. However, it has no chance of governing in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern since the other parties have said they would not form a coalition with the party.
The AfD is also making gains nationwide, a new poll showed on Sunday. If the national election were held next week, the AfD would win 12 per cent of the vote, making it the third-largest party in Germany, according to a poll conducted by the Emnid institute for the Bild newspaper and published on Sunday.
Merkel, mulling a bid for a fourth term as chancellor, made a last-minute campaign appearance on Saturday in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, warning against the politics of "angst"offered by AfD with its virulent anti-refugee stance.