A man holds up a sign that reads: "Many thanks, Mrs. Merkel" during the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a rally ahead of Baden-Wuerttemberg state elections on March 8, 2016 in Nuertingen, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In a new German political ad, a young woman in a dimly lighted underground crossing gazes directly into the camera. She flashes a concerned look, then references the series of sexual assaults in the city of Cologne allegedly committed by migrants on New Year’s Eve.

“I want to feel carefree and safe when I go out,” the woman says in the spot. Afterward, a voice demands the deportation of criminal migrants .

Sponsored by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party ahead of key local elections this Sunday, the ad is heralding the rise of a new brand of right-wing populism in this nation still haunted by its Nazi past.

Polling as high as 18 percent in one of the three states where ­voters are heading to the ballot box this weekend, the three-year-old AfD is catching on as never before. It has done that in part by turning Sunday’s vote into a ­referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for ­asylum seekers.

After largely wallowing on the fringes of German politics, the party could leverage a strong showing this weekend, emerging as a significant new political force here — this despite harsh statements by its leaders deemed outrageous by German political elites and seen by some observers as downright Donald Trumpesque.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel waves at a campaign rally as she receives applause from Julia Klöckner, the Christian Democratic Union party’s top candidate for in a state election Sunday. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

In recent weeks, the AfD’s chairwoman, Frauke Petry, went as far as openly suggesting that police officers could, as a last resort, open fire on asylum seekers trying to cross German borders. Later, a senior AfD politician, Beatrix von Storch, seemed to suggest that police could even fire upon women and children illegally crossing the border.

Von Storch later backtracked. But this is still strong stuff in a country that, given its past, had largely resisted the trend toward extremist politics that is sweeping both sides of the Atlantic. Right-wing parties with authoritarian bents now hold sway in Hungary and Poland. And in recent elections in Slovakia, a group of black-clad, storm-trooping, right-wing militants entered the national parliament.

Should the AfD live up to prognostications, experts say, it would mark the best result for right-wing populists in Germany since the 1960s, when economic hard times allowed the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) to gain a foothold.

Rather than chalking up the AfD’s success to the same neo-Nazi sympathies that helped fuel the NPD, however, experts see a reflection of the voter disenchantment that is sweeping the West.

“It’s a similar phenomenon as Trump,” said Heinrich Oberreuter, a political scientist at the University of Passau. “People are angry at the political establishment, and they feel they are not being taken seriously. Political elites are the targets. Alternative for Germany is an expression, an articulation of this imprecise feeling of dissent.”

Founded in 2013 as a party opposed to German-backed Greek bailouts and the euro, the AfD has morphed in the years since, finding a new reason for being as more than 1 million migrants arrived in Germany last year.

The Syrian conflict has created the largest wave of refugees to hit Europe since World War II.

Many in the party insist it is wrong to speak of it in the same breath as the NPD, calling themselves an amalgamation of concerned citizens and former Merkel supporters who feel betrayed. Officially, the party’s platform is far more tempered than the NPD’s. While it says Syrian and Iraqi refugees should be housed in Middle Eastern nations, it officially states that the ones already here who are genuinely fleeing war should be granted temporary protection. It even says immigrants who “want to integrate” are acceptable.

“They are a mix of rather moderate conservatives and people more to the right, with some members flirting with being even further right,” said Jürgen Falter, a professor of political science at Mainz University. “But together, they are no further to the right than the tea party.”

Still, its unofficial stance — as suggested in campaign materials — is markedly more populist.

“Unrestrained mass immigration is threatening our modest wealth and our domestic peace,” reads an AfD election pamphlet distributed in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Apparently referencing the Nazi era, it also argues in favor of German pride: “A one-sided focus on twelve unlucky years of our history obstructs our view of centuries, in which a unique culture and state order was created.”

Late polling suggests the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union is poised for net losses in the three states voting on Sunday. Although the voting is for state parliaments, the outcome has national implications — affecting the makeup of the German Bundesrat, which effectively functions as the country’s second legislative chamber.

Should Merkel’s party truly go down in flames in a manner not yet forecast, she could face rising pressure to step aside in the coming months. But most observers are predicting milder losses as the popularity of Merkel — whose poll numbers had fallen sharply during the refugee crisis — appears to be staging a comeback following an impressive TV interview last week.

And yet, this Sunday could, experts say, give the AfD a seat at the table in German politics even as it continues poaching disenfranchised voters from the mainstream right and left. That prospect is alarming its critics — including Merkel.

“The AfD is a party that doesn’t unite society and that doesn’t offer appropriate solutions for the problems but one that stokes prejudice and divides,” Merkel told the German news outlet Bild last week.

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