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German Far-Right Party Wins Its First County Leadership Post as It Rises in Polls

The far-right Alternative for Germany party saw its first head of a county administration elected Sunday in a rural eastern region, a win that comes as national polls show its support at record levels. 

A runoff election in Sonneberg county pitted Alternative for Germany’s candidate, Robert Sesselmann, against center-right rival Jürgen Köpper. Official figures showed Sesselmann, who had been well ahead in the first round two weeks ago, winning by 52.8% to 47.2%. 

Sonneberg has a relatively small population of 56,800, but the win is a symbolic milestone for Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The 10-year-old party has been polling between 18% and 20% in national surveys lately. 

It has been riding high as center-left Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition with the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats faces strong headwind over high immigration, a plan to replace millions of home heating systems and a reputation for infighting, while inflation remains high. 

Köpper’s center-right opposition Union bloc leads national polls, with lackluster support ratings of just under 30%. 

AfD first entered the national parliament in 2017 after campaigning strongly against migration following an influx of refugees to Europe during the preceding years. Lately it has come out against German support for Ukraine. 

Despite being largely shunned by mainstream parties, it has established itself as a durable force, particularly in the formerly communist and less prosperous east. An AfD candidate made it into last week’s runoff mayoral election in Schwerin, the capital of the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania but was easily defeated. 

Sonneberg is located in Thuringia, one of three eastern regions that holds state elections next year. 

AfD has drifted to the right over the years and faces increasing scrutiny from Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. 

Its regional branch in Thuringia is headed by a prominent figure on the party’s hard right, Björn Höcke, who recently was charged by prosecutors over his alleged use in a 2021 speech of a slogan used by the Nazis’ SA stormtroopers. 

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