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Germany's far-right AfD set for gains in eastern heartland

2 min 18Approximate reading time

Germany's far-right AfD hoped for gains in an election Sunday in the ex-communist eastern state of Thuringia, even as the party faces pressure in the wake of a deadly shooting outside a synagogue.

While popular premier Bodo Ramelow's far-left Die Linke party was expected to retain the top spot, one of the AfD's most radical figures was waging a battle for second place with Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU).

The campaign has been marked by anger, threats and bitter recriminations, with CDU candidate Mike Mohring labelling the AfD's local leader, the nationalist hardliner Bjoern Hoecke, a "Nazi".

As in other parts of east Germany, which is marking the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany looked set to make gains and at least double the 10.6 percent it scored in 2014, according to polls.

The AfD expected to do well despite a dip in support after an October 9 attack in the eastern city of Halle, in which a suspected neo-Nazi shot dead two people, having tried and failed to storm a packed synagogue on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.

After the attack, the government official charged with fighting anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, argued that the AfD, the biggest opposition party in parliament, had trafficked in incendiary anti-Jewish sentiment.

First exit poll results were to be announced shortly after ballot booths close at 1700 GMT.

Latest polls placed support for Die Linke at around 30 percent, the CDU and AfD close at between 20 and 25 percent, and all other parties at below 10 percent each.

The rise of the AfD has made it harder for the other parties to form a governing coalition, boosting the likely role of smaller players like the much reduced Social Democrats and the Greens.

In the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg last month, the AfD surged to become the second-largest force, although in both cases the mainstream parties kept a pact not to enter into government with the far-right party.

- 'Hatred must not win' -

The election in Thuringia, with a population of just over two million and a similar agreement between parties not to govern with the AfD, is unlikely to cause any political earthquakes in Berlin.

But the vote is being closely watched as a snapshot of the mood in the AfD heartland, especially given the role of Hoecke, a former history teacher considered extreme even within the AfD.

Hoecke, 47, has labelled Berlin's Holocaust memorial a "monument of shame" and called for a "180-degree shift" in Germany's remembrance culture and atonement for the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime.

The CDU's Mohring at a recent town hall event in Erfurt declared that "to me, Hoecke is a Nazi".

With tensions running high on the campaign trail, police have been investigating death threats against Mohring and Greens co-leader Robert Habeck, and an arson attack on an AfD campaign truck.

Mohring said he had received messages from neo-Nazis threatening him with the same fate as pro-migrant CDU official Walter Luebcke, who was shot dead last June in a suspected far-right murder.

"Hatred must not be allowed to win," Mohring told Bild. "We have to stick together and hold the line against the right and against Nazis."

The AfD started out as a eurosceptic fringe party before reinventing itself as an anti-Islam, anti-refugee movement to capitalise on anger over an influx of asylum seekers in 2015.

Its populist message has resonated strongest with voters in Germany's former communist east where resentment lingers over lower wages and fewer job opportunities.

Ramelow on Friday charged that "the AfD claims to be the party that cares. But in reality, it is a party that knows nothing but outrage".

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