Nationalists set for gains in German state election

A nationalist, anti-immigration party looks set to perform strongly Sunday in a state election in the eastern German region where Chancellor Angela Merkel has her political base.

The vote comes as surveys show the German leader's popularity has gone down from stellar to merely solid, a year after she took a decision that led to more than 1 million migrants being registered in her country in 2015.

Polls ahead of the election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania show support for the three-year-old Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party running at over 20 percent. That could put it in a position to overtake Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats for second place.

Local AfD leader Leif-Erik Holm says it could even become the strongest party in the state legislature, but there's no serious chance of it going into government.

The state has been run for a decade by the parties that currently govern Germany. The center-left Social Democrats lead the regional government, with Merkel's Christian Democrats as their junior partners. In the last state election five years ago, they polled 35.6 and 23 percent respectively.

Sunday's election is the first of five regional votes ahead of a national election expected in just over a year.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is home to 1.6 million of Germany's 80 million people and is a relative political lightweight. It is, however, the state where Merkel has her parliamentary constituency, and it would be embarrassing for the chancellor if AfD overtakes her party.

Merkel encouraged people in an RTL television interview Friday "to give their votes to parties that work to solve problems, and for me AfD is not one of them."

Mecklenburg, in Germany's northeastern corner, is economically weak and has an unemployment rate well above the national average. It is currently the only place in Germany where the far-right National Democratic Party is represented in the state legislature, though polls suggest it is likely to lose its seats with some supporters switching to AfD.

The sparsely populated coastal state is home to relatively few foreigners, but the migrant issue has nevertheless been prominent in the campaign, with AfD using it to attack the governing parties.

New migrant arrivals in Germany have slowed drastically this year after spiking following Merkel's Sept. 4, 2015 decision to allow in migrants who had piled up in Hungary. Still, New Year's Eve robberies and sexual assaults blamed largely on foreigners, as well as two attacks in July carried out by asylum-seekers and claimed by the Islamic State group, have fed tensions.

Merkel has stuck to her insistence that "we will manage" the refugee crisis, but has acknowledged there is "a very contentious mood."

But "sometimes you have endure such controversies," she said. "I will work for people to see that we will solve the problems, from security to integration to repatriation, step by step."