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story.lead_photo.caption Saxony-Anhalt state governor Reiner Haseloff of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, CDU, and his wife Gabriele react, at the CDU election party, after the state election in Magdeburg, Germany, Sunday, June 6, 2021 . The election for the new state parliament in Saxony-Anhalt was the last state election before the federal election in September 2021. (Bernd Von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP)

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives handily batted away a challenge from the far right in a state election Sunday seen as the last big test for Germany’s political parties before a national vote in September.

Projections by public broadcaster ARD put Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union at 36.6 percent, a gain of more than 6 percentage points compared to the last election five years ago in the sparsely populated state of 2.2 million inhabitants.

The far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, was projected to get 22 percent of the vote, a slight drop compared to 2016. The party has moved steadily further to the right in recent years and its chapter in Saxony-Anhalt has come under increased scrutiny from Germany’s domestic intelligence service for its ties to extremist groups.

While elections in Germany’s 16 states are often influenced by local issues and voting sentiments, they are also seen as important bellwethers for the national mood. A strong win for the CDU would be seen as a sign that the party’s new leader, Armin Laschet, can hope for support from both conservatives and centrists on Sept. 26, when it aims to hold onto power at the federal level despite four-term chancellor Merkel not running again.

The election result, if projections based on partial counts are confirmed, would be a strong endorsement for incumbent governor Reiner Haseloff of the CDU, who now has the comfort of being able to pick from as many as four possible coalitions with smaller parties. For the past five years, the 67-year-old has governed in an unprecedented coalition with the center-left Social Democrats and environmentalist Greens.

Haseloff, whose popularity in the state was a strong pull for voters, ruled out any cooperation with AfD or the ex-communist Left party, who were projected to get 11 percent of the vote — a record low in the state.

The Social Democrats also fared worse than five years ago and were expected to get about 8.4 percent, while the Greens made modest gains to take 6 percent. Projections also showed the pro-business Free Democrats entered the state assembly again after missing out five years ago, receiving 6.5 percent.

A final result wasn’t likely before late Sunday or Monday, as many mail-in ballots had yet to be counted.

Haseloff expressed relief that voters backed centrist parties at the expense of the political fringes, saying the outcome showed a “big, big majority had made a democratic choice and drawn a clear demarcation line to the right.” Aside from its core message against immigration, the AfD this year campaigned strongly against pandemic restrictions and its election posters urged voters to demonstrate their “resistance” at the ballot box.

But Karamba Diaby, who chairs the Social Democrats’ chapter in the state’s biggest city, Halle, said the fact the far right had again won more than a fifth of the total vote was “very sad for democracy.”

Diaby, who also represents his party in the national parliament, said the Social Democrats had failed to capitalize on their achievements in the state government — an argument that has also been used to explain its poor results at the federal level.

“It’s clear that we’re not going to stick our heads in the sand,” he said. “The election campaign for the Bundestag starts tomorrow.”

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