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Brandeburg State Secretary for the Interior and Local Government Katrin Lange (SPD) and CDU Brandenburg State Chairman Ingo Senftleben leave exploratory coalition talks. Photo: Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

The results of two state elections in the former East Germany on Sunday cast a troublesome picture for the region — confirming fatigue with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Grand Coalition government in Berlin and signaling further political fragmentation.

The big picture: Both major parties — the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — lost voters but managed to hold the line against the far-right, xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. They will now seek to form a majority and build a coalition with parties other than the AfD, making the right-wing populists the largest opposition party in Brandenburg and Saxony.

Details: Since German reunification in 1990, the CDU has led the state of Saxony while the SPD has reigned in Brandenburg. Each party eked out a victory in its respective stronghold, of 32% and 26%, thanks to strong retail politicking by local candidates.

  • Yes, but: The AfD came in a close second, with almost a third of the vote in Saxony and close to a quarter in Brandenburg.

Where it stands: The AfD's ascendance is bringing together unexpected political bedfellows.

  • Brandenburg and Saxony will likely cobble together 3-party governments, as is now the case in nearly a third of Germany’s federal states.
  • When Merkel's government comes to an end in 2021, Berlin might have to make room for 3 parties in the next Cabinet.

Between the lines: The AfD was on the wane until the 2015 migration crisis paved its way into the federal Parliament in 2017 with 12.6% of the vote. It has hit a ceiling of 14% nationwide, but Sunday’s strong results show the AfD to be a major party in the former East.

  • Most AfD voters view the party as a channel for protest. Pre-election polls show that 59% of voters in Brandenburg and 66% in Saxony feel like second-class citizens.
  • The AfD has not only pulled in CDU and SPD voters but also mobilized non-voters. Close to 40% of this weekend's AfD voters stayed home 5 years ago.
  • The LEFT party, tied to the former communists in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), used to be the protest party for disaffected voters in the East, but lost approximately 8 percentage points in each state.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior transatlantic fellow and deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office.

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