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Germany's far-right surges to second place in another state election

Bodo Ramelow, Thuringia State Prime Minister and top candidate of the Left Party (Die Linke) and Bjoern Hoecke, Alternative for Germany (AfD) top candidate for the Thuringia state election are seen at the state parliament in Erfurt, Germany October 27, 2019. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt (Axel Schmidt / Reuters)

Germany’s far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) just surged into second place in another state election, signalling a growing move by the country towards abandoning centrist parties.

Exit polls from broadcaster ARD showed that the Linke (Left) party had scooped 30.6%, while the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) came in second with 23.6% in the eastern German state of Thuringia on Sunday. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) took third place with 22.1%.

The election in Thuringia, a state regarded as the political heartland of the former East, has been closely watched as a barometer on the growing support for the far-right AfD and loss of ground for Germany’s two ruling parties— the CDU and the centre-left Social Democrats. On Sunday, the Social Democrats only took 8.5% of the vote, and the Greens and Free Democrats around 5% each.

READ MORE: Far-right AfD becomes second-biggest party in two eastern German states

After Saxony and Brandenburg, Thuringia is the third eastern German state election in as many months where the AfD has become the second most-popular party.

With Germany preparing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, the rise of the AfD — currently the third largest in the Bundestag, and the main opposition— reflects how stark divisions persist in the country three decades later.

The splintered result will make coalition building a challenge for the Linke, whose popular leader Bodo Ramelow has been state premier since 2014. All parties have ruled out governing in a coalition with the AfD.

The AfD has made great gains in recent years in formerly Communist DDR states. During the 2017 general election, they campaigned on a harsh anti-immigrant platform. Now, with the refugee influx no longer such a hot issue in Germany, the party has switched to harnessing frustration and discontent in the east of the country, where people have not fared as well economically as their western counterparts since Reunification.

READ MORE: German criminal police chief: far-right crime is endangering democracy

Björn Höcke, the AfD candidate for Thuringia, is one of the most extreme members of the far-right party, and and heads up the a more nationalist group within the party, called the Wing, which is under the surveillance of German intelligence services.

A retired schoolteacher, Höcke has been threatened with expulsion from the party in the past for his incendiary rhetoric, including calling Berlin's Holocaust memorial a "memorial of shame" and called for a "180-degree turnaround” in the country’s culture of making amends for World War II.

After a recently deadly attack on a synagogue in October, where a right-wing extremist shot and killed two people on the street, the AfD has been criticised for blatantly stoking hatred in Germany. The CDU leader in Thuringia received neo-Nazi death threats during the campaign for today’s elections.