BERLIN • Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition caught a breather as its main parties stemmed a surge by Germany's far-right populists in two elections in the former communist east.
The eurosceptic, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD by its German acronym, trailed the incumbent Social Democrats (SPD) by about 4 percentage points in the eastern state of Brandenburg, according to official results of Sunday's election. In neighbouring Saxony, Dr Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) led the AfD by around the same margin.
"The friendly Saxony won," the state's CDU prime minister Michael Kretschmer told supporters in Dresden, while AfD leaders in Brandenburg pledged strong opposition.
Mrs Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU's national leader, yesterday acknowledged that the party had not addressed some of the problems afflicting Germany "as elegantly" as it should have, which was also reflected in the regional election results.
"We see that people want answers for the future, they want things to be tackled in the government," Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer said in an interview with ARD television. "That is exactly my task and that's what we will do in the coming weeks in a very focused way."
The narrow victories in the two states may for now stave off a deeper political crisis in the 17-month-old governing coalition that had been bickering over issues from the environment to gender and wealth gaps. It also suffered heavy losses in European Union elections earlier this year.
But the stiff challenge from a protest party that did not exist before 2013 is a wake-up call to Germany's two main political parties just as Europe's largest nation teeters on the brink of a recession.
"Good that they're not ahead, but better that they can't repeat these results," Finance Minister Olaf Scholz of the SPD said on local TV. "It's the duty of all of us to ensure the AfD becomes weaker again."
Sunday's result may have been as much a vote against extremism as it was for Germany's mainstream parties, which have continually lost ground to the right wing and to the Greens in recent years.
"This was a very strong signal against the AfD, people didn't want the AfD to be the strongest party," said SPD secretary-general Lars Klingbeil. "We have very mixed feelings, I can say that openly."
Dr Merkel's ruling coalition has been plagued by infighting and a poor showing on Sunday could have further pushed the SPD, the junior coalition partner, to eventually leave the government.
"It could have been worse," Mr Carsten Nickel, analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London, said. "But there is no denying that the SPD continues to die a slow death while the CDU lacks any idea for the post-Merkel world."