Anti-migrant party makes big gains at Merkel's expense
Angela Merkel was reeling from a series of election losses last night that could prove the most serious challenge she has faced to her power in Germany.
The vote, on what the German press called 'Super Sunday', was for regional parliaments in three of the country's federal states.
But the timing meant that it was seen as a virtual referendum on Mrs Merkel's 'open-door' refugee policy.
The results could seriously undermine the German chancellor as she tries to persuade EU leaders to agree to a deal with Turkey to resolve the migrant crisis.
Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrat party (CDU) was beaten in its stronghold of Baden-Wuerttemberg for the first time in more than 50 years, according to exit polls.
In the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, it saw a lead of 10pc in the polls evaporate in just four months.
Most damaging of all for Mrs Merkel, the far-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party stormed to its best election results ever on a campaign that focused almost exclusively on an anti-migrant message.
In the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt, where the CDU managed to cling on to first place, celebrations were muted as the AfD secured a shock second place with 23pc of the vote.
The AfD won seats in all three state parliaments and emerged from the night as a political force Mrs Merkel can no longer afford to ignore.
"We have fundamental problems in Germany that led to this election result," said Frauke Petry, the AfD leader.
"We're seeing above all that voters are turning away in large numbers from the big established parties and voting for us.
"They expect us finally to be the opposition that there hasn't been."
Ms Petry caused controversy ahead of the election by calling for police to shoot asylum seekers at the border.
Other parties won't share power with AfD, but its presence will complicate their coalition-building efforts. In all three states, the results were set to leave the outgoing coalition governments without a majority - forcing regional leaders into time-consuming negotiations with unusual partners.
"No question about it, none of the parties in the federal parliament has any reason to be happy about these election results," said Michael Grosse-Broemer, the parliamentary chief whip of Mrs Merkel's CDU.
"They're good results for a protest party with no real competence, the AfD, and that is very annoying."
"The democratic centre in our country has not become stronger, but smaller, and I think we must all take that seriously," said Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrats leader.
There was a considerable increase in turn-out on previous state elections, which commentators put down to voters wanting to punish Mrs Merkel.
The CDU saw its share of the vote drop by a shocking 11.5pc in Baden-Wuerttemberg.
The result in Rhineland-Palatinate, where its share dropped by 2.7pc, was particularly disappointing for the CDU after it had been widely expected to seize control from the Social Democrats (SPD).
Julia Kloeckner, the CDU leader in the state, publicly disowned the chancellor's refugee policy but it was not enough to rescue the campaign.
If there was any comfort for Mrs Merkel in the results, it was in the success of the rival Green Party in Baden-Wuerttemberg.
While the Greens displaced her own CDU, they have been considerably more supportive of her refugee policy than her own party.
There were warnings ahead of the elections that a poor result for the CDU could see the party look to a new leader ahead of next year's national elections.
But Mrs Merkel can point to the Greens' success as evidence that her refugee policy is a vote-winner - just not with her party's traditional voters.
A top official with Merkel's party called for it to stay on its course in the migrant crisis.
CDU general secretary Peter Tauber pointed to recent polls indicating that her popularity is rebounding and added: "This shows that it is good if the CDU sticks to this course, saying that we need time to master this big challenge." (© Daily Telegraph, London)