Voters in Eastern Germany on Sunday for the first time elected a far-right city mayor, a reflection of the surging popularity of the nationalist party Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
Tim Lochner, 53, an independent backed by the party, will lead Pirna, a city of 38,000 people in the state of Saxony, where the party was recently labeled an extremist organization by the state authorities.
“It’s very, very important for the AfD,” said Benjamin Höhne, a political scientist who studies populism. “It allows them to show that they can take responsibility at a municipal level,” he added, noting that it was an important part of the party’s “normalization strategy.”
Mr. Lochner defeated two other candidates in a run-off on Sunday with 38.5 percent of the vote; he won the first round of voting late last month against a large field of candidates, but not strongly enough to win outright.
According to recent polling, nearly a third of voters in the five eastern states support the AfD. In Saxony, where support is highest, 35 percent of voters said they would pick the AfD if a statewide election were held on Sunday. Across Germany, the AfD now polls at around 22 percent support, second only to the conservative Christian Democratic Union and well ahead of the governing Social Democrats. The AfD is poised to gain more power when three states in the east vote for their legislatures next year.
The AfD, which in the most recent federal election, in 2021, received only 10 percent of the vote, has benefited from a range of frustrations with Germany’s three-party government. Chief among them are fears of a shrinking economy, worries about the war in Ukraine and — most important — the perception that illegal immigration is out of control. Since the AfD’s founding as a tiny, esoteric Euro-skeptic party 11 years ago, it had never scored such high levels of support until now.
But despite sustained popularity in the east, the party was not able to win local offices until this summer because of the way many municipalities and districts vote. Many of them vote on a majority principle, meaning mainstream parties could coalesce around the strongest agreeable opponent to keep the far right at bay.
Such political strategies have become more important as the AfD has moved further to the right. This month, Saxony’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a domestic state intelligence organization, labeled Saxony’s state chapter of the AfD extremist. Björn Höcke, the head of the party in neighboring Thuringia, is facing a trial for his use of a banned Nazi slogan during a campaign speech. The party runs broadly on an anti-immigrant platform that sometimes crosses into anti-foreigner territory.
Because of municipal election rules in Saxony, more than just two candidates could advance to Sunday’s runoff, and the votes in opposition to the AfD were split.
“It’s a minor dam break that neither of the other parties pulled out to ensure AfD would not win,” Dr. Höhne said.
In June, the bulwark against the AfD first cracked when a member was elected as district commissioner in the Sonneberg area of southern Thuringia. Then in July the AfD won the mayor’s seat of a small town, Raguhn-Jeßnitz, in Saxony-Anhalt.
But Pirna, which has the reputation of harboring citizens with extreme right-wing views, is the first city to elect a mayor backed by Alternative for Germany.
A beautiful city in the region known as Saxon Switzerland, Pirna has struggled to attract industry and commerce beyond tourism. Its proximity to the state capital, Dresden, has made Pirna a popular commuter city.
The mayorship was open after the incumbent, who turned 70 and had been in office since 2010, decided not to run for another term.