By Joseph Nasr
DRESDEN, Germany (Reuters) - An emboldened far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) warned Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition partners they could not carry on as before after luring many of their voters to come second in two regional elections in eastern Germany on Sunday.
The party almost tripled its share of the vote in Saxony to 27.5% and saw its support double in neighbouring Brandenburg, a major feat for a party set up only six years ago to oppose euro zone bailouts.
Choosing to bask in their achievements rather than linger on their failure to win either state, AfD leaders in the Saxony parliament in Dresden were brimming with confidence over beer, wine and a buffet of mainly German sausages.
They believe their gains can destabilise the national coalition of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD).
"The CDU and SPD suffered losses. Our success here could trigger the dismantling of the coalition in Berlin," said Alice Weidel, leader of the AfD's national parliamentary party.
"The other parties can't continue with business as usual."
The AfD's success will certainly make coalition building difficult for the CDU conservatives in Saxony, which they have governed for almost three decades, and for the SPD in Brandenburg where the centre-left party has ruled since 1990.
One of the SPD's interim leaders, Manuela Schwesig, expressed concern about the AfD's strength.
"Our task must be to work out why so many chose to protest in this way. We must all be aware that the AfD's results show we must take account of the concerns of people in the East," she said.
There was still relief within the two ruling parties, given that a few months ago polls showed the AfD could become the strongest party in one or both of the two East German states.
"Today's results are, in spite of the strong gains of the AfD in comparison to the last elections, a relief," said Andreas Umland, senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation. "They indicate that, even in East Germany, the AfD remains a secondary political player."
The AfD, though, was looking on the bright side.
"Today is an historic day," Joerg Urban, AfD leader in Saxony where the AfD won its biggest-ever share of the vote, told jubilant supporters in the Dresden parliament.
"We had the biggest rise in support," he said after preliminary results put his party on just over 27%, behind Merkel's CDU which shed more than 7 points. "This is our biggest ever victory."
The AfD has drawn on voters' discontent with Merkel's coalition and especially on her 2015 decision to let in refugees, many from war zones in the Middle East and Africa.
On the streets of Dresden, whose historical centre is still being renovated after it was almost completely obliterated shortly before the end of World War Two, the mood was more subdued.
Fritz Busch, 82, a CDU voter born in Dresden who was 8 years old when the city was firebombed, said he was worried the backlash against Merkel's 2015 decision was tearing at German democracy.
"She had no choice," he said. "We lost two World Wars that we had started and have a moral obligation to help and she understood that in 2015. AfD supporters simply don't get this".
At the central train station at the other end of the city, one refugee family from Libya was unaware of the elections.
"The AfD don't want us here," said Ashraf al-Haitham, standing next to his veiled wife and two children, adding: "We'd rather live under AfD rule in Germany than go back."
(Additional reporting by Paul Carrel; Editing by Madeline Chambers and Mark Potter)