Germany's new anti-euro party is poised to win seats in two eastern state elections Sunday, heightening an emerging threat for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD), only formed early last year, looks set to enter state parliaments in Thuringia and Brandenburg, two weeks after it scored almost 10 percent in eastern Saxony.
Headed by economics professor Bernd Lucke, the ascendant party only narrowly missed out on entering the national parliament last September and won seven seats in European Parliament elections in May.
The party, which wants Germany to leave the euro and return to the Deutschmark, denies seeking right-wing voters but flirts with populist ideas on issues such as law and order, immigration and "family values".
Among its policy demands are "direct democracy", including, at the state level, a referendum that would seek to block plans to build a mosque in the eastern city of Dresden.
In the polls Sunday the AfD is set to draw much of the "protest vote" in the former East, which still lags western states in wealth, jobs and wages 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, analysts say.
Merkel, worried about the AfD's growing ballot box appeal, this week said that "we must address the problems that concern the people", including "crime and rising numbers of asylum seekers".
- 'Not a transient protest party' -
Analysts say the AfD is seeking to occupy the political ground to the right of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) while keeping its distance from the far-right fringe, represented by the openly xenophobic National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).
"The CDU is slowly starting to understand what the AfD really is -- not a transient protest movement, not an 'NPD-light', but a party that is drawing significant support ... from former CDU voters" among other groups, said Werner Patzelt of Dresden Technical University.
The political scientist said it is too early to tell whether the AfD -- now in its political "puberty" and benefiting from a string of victories in a tight electoral calendar -- is here to stay, a question that he said depends on how its new lawmakers perform.
But Patzelt pointed out that the AfD's central theme -- railing against eurozone bailouts and an emerging EU "super state" -- is unlikely to go away soon and that such fears are mirrored in other European countries.
In Germany, he said, "the playing field is open... on the right of the spectrum, and that is where the AfD is now gaining strength".
- Far-left also eyes gains -
Also expected to make gains is the far-left Linke party, which groups former eastern Communists and anti-capitalists from western states.
Its top candidate for Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, hopes to oust the CDU and head a coalition government with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and possibly the ecologist Greens.
It would be the first so-called "red-red-green" government in which the Linke would be the senior partner and would make a similar three-way alliance thinkable at the national level one day.
The SPD's leader, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, did not rule out such a Thuringia power pact for his party, which at the national level is the junior coalition partner to Merkel's CDU.
So far the SPD has rejected a national level tie-up with the Linke, whose policy positions include a basic salary for everybody and a ban on any German military missions abroad.
Gabriel -- with a view to disenchanted voters who may opt for the AfD -- also said: "I always advise voters to distrust those politicians who provide the very easy answers."
The SPD, meanwhile, looks set to again cruise to victory in Brandenburg, the state that encircles Berlin, which has been a Social Democratic bastion for a quarter-century.