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(photo credit: AP)
A far-right party won seats Sunday in a regional parliament in formerly communist east Germany, exploiting discontent in the region with the country's highest unemployment rate.
Results in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and in city elections in Berlin also reflected disenchantment with Chancellor Angela Merkel's left-right coalition government at the federal level.
The National Democratic Party won 7.3 percent of the vote in Mecklenburg, a rural region next to the Polish border that includes Merkel's home constituency, up from less than 1 percent in the previous state vote.
"That's the most depressing result," said Erwin Sellering, deputy leader in Mecklenburg of the Social Democratic Party, which lost ground in the vote. "Depressing for us all because it was our common goal to prevent it."
Mainstream parties had called on voters to cast their ballot for anyone except the National Democratic Party. Known by its German initials NPD, the party is a fringe player at the national level, where its affinities with Adolf Hitler's Nazis deters the vast majority of voters.
Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder tried to ban the party for fomenting violence against minorities. But the Supreme Court threw out the ban because the government's case rested on inflammatory statements made by government informants.
Since then, the party has gained a foothold in the economically struggling east, where in 2004 it won seats in the legislature in the state of Saxony by getting 9.2 percent of the local vote.
Sunday's results in Mecklenburg and Berlin were doubly worrying for Germany's dominant parties _ Merkel's conservatives and her coalition partner in the current federal government, the Social Democrats.
Her Christian Democrats lost support in both regions compared with elections in 2001 and 2002, and polls say its popularity is eroding nationwide amid plans to hike taxes and rows over how to reform Germany's welfare state.
As well as the strong showing for the NPD, neither of the big parties scored much above 30 percent in either election, confirming the fragmentation of German politics and opening the door to more cumbersome coalitions including smaller parties such as the Greens.
Final results gave the Social Democrats 30.2 percent in Mecklenburg, down from nearly 41 percent in the state vote in 2002. It was uncertain if they would continue their local coalition with the ex-communist Left Party or ally with Merkel's Christian Democrats.
The Social Democrats were clearly the strongest party in the capital, and Mayor Klaus Wowereit said he would hold talks with both the ex-communists and the resurgent Greens on a coalition.
In Mecklenburg, successive governments have struggled to reverse the economic collapse that hit much of east Germany after reunification in 1990. The jobless rate there was 18.2 percent in August.
Leaders of the state, which includes Germany's best beaches and Merkel's Baltic coast constituency, insist it is on the right track, and agriculture and tourism are bright spots.
But the NPD appears to have harnessed growing disillusionment from those who feel the mainstream parties can never address the region's problems, which also include the steady drift of young people to western Germany or abroad in search of work.
The NPD has called for financial incentives for families to have more children. It has also made no secret of its harsh anti-foreigner stance and has praised Nazi-era economic and education policies.
Commentators blame the far-right's strength in the east on the region's shallow democratic roots after decades of communism and say authorities have failed to launch education campaigns that have stemmed right-wing extremism elsewhere.
Udo Pastoers, one of six NPD members expected to win seats in the state parliament in Schwerin promised to wage "really tough opposition."
"We will expose the red-red catastrophe that has driven people to the brink of despair," Pastoers said on ZDF, referring to the Social Democrat and Left Party colors.