BERLIN—German Chancellor

Angela Merkel’s

conservative movement suffered another electoral setback on Sunday after voters in Germany’s East deserted the country’s mainstream parties for the fringes.

While extending a yearslong trend toward the fragmentation of the political spectrum, the election in the state of Thuringia also confirmed another development: A widening political rift between the former East and West Germany.

Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which used to be the strongest party in the province, saw its share of the vote drop to 21.8% from 33.5% in the 2014 election, according to preliminary results. In contrast, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, more than doubled its share of the vote to 23.4%.

The Left Party, a radical grouping that has its roots in East Germany’s ruling Communist party, won about a third of all votes, cementing its position as the state’s dominant party.

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and following decades of economic and political convergence between western and eastern Germany, the general trend toward a more divided political landscape, with weaker mainstream parties and stronger fringe groupings, is proceeding much faster in the East.

“This is a bitter evening for the democratic center because for the first time in a regional election in Germany there isn’t a majority for the mainstream parties,” said Reiner Haseloff, the conservative prime minister of the neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt. “This shows how divided and polarized society there has become.”

Both AfD and the Left Party are much stronger in the regions that once belonged to the former Soviet bloc country. Indeed, fragmentation in the East has become so acute that forming governments is becoming more difficult, requiring unwieldy coalitions between parties that often have diametrically opposed policies on key issues.

Thuringia so far has been governed by a coalition headed the Left Party with the Social Democrats and the Greens as junior partners.

While the results were still in flux in the early evening, this government appeared to have lost its majority as both the Greens and the SPD saw their already small share of the vote shrink further.

Björn Höcke, leader of the Alternative for Germany party in Thuringia, at a polling station in Bornhagen on Sunday.


Photo:

jens schlueter/EPA/Shutterstock

The AfD in Thuringia is more radical than in the rest of the country, and its leader, Björn Höcke, is one of the party’s most controversial figures. All other parties have ruled out joining the AfD in a coalition.

Mr. Höcke campaigned against immigrants and political correctness, has criticized Germany’s culture of remembrance around the Holocaust as self-flagellation, and has derided environmental policies.

“Today the question is to be sheep or wolf, and I—no we!—must decide to be the wolves,” Mr. Höcke said at a televised rally last week.

Mr. Höcke stoked controversy in a 2017 interview with The Wall Street Journal, when he said in reference to Adolf Hitler that no man could be entirely bad.

“Even the worst severe criminal perhaps has something good, something worth loving, but he is still a severe criminal,” Mr. Höcke said.

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