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Conservative German state premier quits after far-right surge

BERLIN (Reuters) - The conservative premier of the eastern German state of Saxony resigned on Wednesday, saying a younger generation of leaders is needed after his party bled support to the far right in national elections last month.

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Stanislaw Tillich’s decision not seek re-election as leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in Saxony signals tension among her conservatives over the surge of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The AfD won the most votes in Saxony itself in Germany’s Sept. 24 general election, as conservative voters drifted to the hard right in protest at Merkel’s decision in 2015 to welcome more than one million mainly Muslim asylum seekers.

“Today we face big communal challenges,” said Tillich, who had warned Merkel after the election that the weakened CDU must change course notably on immigration policy to stop a rightward shift in Germany’s formerly communist east.

“Saxony needs new answers. And this requires new and fresh strength,” the 58-year-old outgoing premier added in remarks published on Saxony’s state Twitter account.

His criticism was echoed by Rainer Haseloff, premier of Saxony-Anhalt state where the AfD came in second after the CDU. Haselhoff said voters wanted guarantees that politicians were not forfeiting Germany’s national identity.

The AfD stormed into Germany’s Bundestag (lower house of parliament) for the first time, winning almost 13 percent of the vote nationwide to become the third largest party.

Merkel’s conservative bloc, which includes the CDU’s Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU) sister party, on Wednesday launched exploratory talks with the pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens on a possible coalition government.

Merkel has told CDU lawmakers that compromises would have to be made to make the complicated talks a success. The Greens, FDP and conservatives disagree on many key issues including immigration, euro zone integration, and environmental policies.

The Saxony CDU will hold a congress on Dec. 9 to elect a successor for Tillich.

Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Editing by Madeline Chambers and Mark Heinrich