BERLIN — In a country that kept the far right restricted to the political sidelines for more than half a century, the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) marked a watershed moment on Sunday, according to first projections that showed the party winning more than 13 percent of the vote.
The AfD won't be in a position to drive a legislative agenda, but Sunday's vote probably will give it something the far right had always been denied: parliamentary legitimacy on a national level.
"Once a party gains access to Parliament, chances become much lower that it will simply disappear again," said Tarik Abou-Chadi, a comparative politics researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin. "The election could remove the social stigma which has hampered other far-right parties in the past."
With seats in the Bundestag, the AfD will be eligible to receive more taxpayer funding. As the only anti-immigration party in a mostly consensus-based national parliament, the AfD can also hope to further sharpen its profile as an alternative to Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"We will chase Ms. Merkel," AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland said after first projections Sunday showed big gains for the far right. His party was determined to "claim back our country and people," he said.
Gauland and other AfD candidates made headlines throughout the campaign with remarks widely considered inflammatory. Yet some of its voters said Sunday that they hoped the raised profile would force Merkel to rethink some of her recent policy changes.
Jens Fleischer, who lives in the eastern German city of Dresden, where he works as an IT manager, said that his vote for the far right was also supposed to be a warning to the Christian Democrats to not forget about their base.
"I could be convinced to return to the CDU if they became more conservative again. Under Merkel, they have moved too far to the left for me and many others," said Fleischer, who hopes that the AfD will collaborate with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, in Parliament, rather than acting as a rebellious protest party.
In Berlin's Weissensee district, such hopes were echoed by another AfD voter who did not provide his name because of his job as a police officer. The former Merkel voter said that he was disgruntled by her acceptance of immigration, progressive gender models and the legalization of same-sex marriage.
"We're not the United States of Europe — we are Germany, and I'd like to preserve our national identity," he said, although he also acknowledged that most of his political views were more closely aligned with the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) than with the AfD. "It's about priorities, though, and immigration is the top issue for me."
Given the cultural and ideological focus of the AfD, political scientists do not expect the far right's base to splinter once the party is in Parliament. "There are always ways to find compromises when it comes to the distribution of wealth — but you either agree or you disagree with gay marriage. There is no in between," said Holger Lengfeld, a professor at the University of Leipzig.
The AfD's chances to expand its appeal further appear to be limited, however. A vast majority — about 67 percent of Germans — said in a Gallup poll conducted before Sunday's vote that they were satisfied with their nationally elected officials.
Widespread opposition to the far-right among more mainstream voters is also unlikely to disappear, even as some AfD supporters hope that their party will be willing to cooperate with others to pass legislation.
"The AfD would be rather stupid if they were to engage in any constructive dialogue, however," said Timo Lochocki, an expert on European party politics with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, an American think tank.
"It's a party that only exists because it is so different from the rest," he said.