Divided far-right AfD loses ground in east German stronghold

Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) spokesperson Tino Chrupalla, chairman of state of Saxony-Anhalt, Martin Reichardt and top candidate for Saxony-Anhalt Oliver Kirchner depart after a news conference following the state election, in Berlin, Germany, June 7, 2021. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse/Pool

BERLIN (Reuters) - The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) tried on Monday to put a brave face on election losses in an eastern stronghold where its anti-immigration line failed to chime with voters' concerns.

After polling neck-and-neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU in Saxony-Anhalt for weeks, the AfD on the day won just 20.8%, more than 16 points behind the CDU and 3.5 points down from the previous election in 2016.

Under surveillance in Saxony-Anhalt for suspected anti-democratic activity, the AfD is shunned as a potential coalition partner by all other national parties. But it can still play a significant part in September's federal election by taking a large share of conservative votes, as it did in 2017.

The result not only suggested that the AfD may have lost touch with some voters, but also highlighted a rift between the party's hardline wing, responsible for its policy platform in Saxony-Anhalt, and a less radical grouping.

That platform included a 2,000-euro payment for each baby born to at least one German parent, cuts in public funding for theatres promoting "anti-German" plays, and a statement that Islam is not compatible with Western culture.

But in an election that played out as Germany started to reopen after months of coronavirus lockdowns, the pollster Infratest/Dimap found that the AfD's focus on stricter immigration rules had not been among the priorities of voters, who were more interested in the economy and job security.

It also found that many left-leaning voters had voted tactically for the CDU in order to block the AfD.

Co-leader Joerg Meuthen, who heads the less radical wing, told German public radio that the party could have achieved "a significantly stronger result" with a softer platform.

He was notably absent from a news conference with hardline co-leader Tino Chrupalla and Oliver Kirchner, who heads the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt.

A prickly Chrupalla, asked why AfD leaders had differing views on the election result, said:

"I don't see the difference between a respectable result and a sensational result. I've said it is a very good result."

Set up in 2013 as an anti-euro party during the euro zone debt crisis, the AfD is polling nationally at around 11%, down from nearly 13% in the 2017 general election, after which it became the main opposition and third-largest party.

It harbours many coronavirus deniers and vaccine-sceptics who have joined protests against coronavirus lockdowns.

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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