Alternative for Germany, or AfD, proclaimed that it can't be frozen out of power forever after it nearly tripled its support in Saxony and almost doubled it in neighboring Brandenburg on Sunday compared with five years earlier.
The far-right AfD took around a quarter of the vote between the two states, reflecting its establishment as a major political force — particularly in the ex-communist east — after the 2015 migrant influx.
But it fell short of beating the traditional parties that have governed those regions since German reunification in 1990, a possibility that seemed likely a few weeks ago and could have further destabilized Chancellor Angela Merkel's struggling coalition government in Berlin.
It remains uncertain whether her alliance will survive until the next national election, due in 2021. That is likely to become clear only in December, when the center-left Social Democrats — Merkel's junior partners in Berlin — finish choosing a new leadership from a 17-candidate field and mull the alliance's future.
The leader of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, renewed her long-standing insistence that her party won't work with AfD. Asked if it can continue freezing out a force that wins a quarter of the vote, she replied: "Yes, we can." She argued that such a stance had attracted voters.
But she acknowledged that the outcome in Saxony, where her party won but now faces the prospect of patching together a three-way alliance with the environmentalist Greens, was a "difficult result." In Brandenburg, the Social Democrats face a similar task after their outgoing government lost its majority.
AfD has thrived on uncompromising opposition, and savored the prospect of more. "Opposition is not necessary garbage," co-leader Joerg Meuthen said. "We will be a very strong opposition against very fragile governing alliances."
Meuthen compared AfD to Italy's League, which was once a regional party in Italy's north but surged to wider popularity with a strong anti-migrant stance in the country's recently collapsed government. "We are going in that direction, except that here change is coming not from the north of the country but from the east," he proclaimed.
Fellow party leader Alexander Gauland said there were majorities on the right in both states that voted Sunday and he was "very confident" that "not in the short term, but certainly in the medium-term" those could be turned into a government, at least in Saxony. "We have an election result that won't allow us to be left out in the cold permanently," he said.
Whether there's any chance of AfD's eastern strength spreading west is questionable at best. In May, the party won 11% of the nationwide vote in the European Parliament election, lower than the proportion it took at the national election in 2017 to enter Germany's federal parliament.
In recent months, the Greens — who have positioned themselves as more or less the opposite of AfD — have been surging in national polls. Traditionally weak in the east, the party made modest gains on Sunday, with some prospective voters apparently lining up behind Merkel's CDU in Saxony and the Social Democrats in Brandenburg to prevent AfD winning.
AfD has tapped into disillusionment in the east among people who feel left behind after nearly three decades of German unity. Promises of equal living standards didn't always become reality, salaries in the east still lag behind those in the west and many young people have left to seek opportunities elsewhere.
AfD received its strongest support Sunday from men in rural areas, with its overall support around 10 percentage points higher among men than among women. It has risen as the Left Party, which is partly rooted in East Germany's communist party, appears to have lost its once-strong appeal to protest voters in the region.
"In the east, it has reached a size that it is laborious to govern around it, and the other parties are still struggling with that," Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, told Deutschlandfunk radio. But he said it wasn't realistic to expect other parties to stop freezing it out of government "in the foreseeable future," for the next two or three parliamentary terms.
Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.