AfD members
AfD membersReuters

Germany's far-right AfD won its first district election on Sunday, a further boost to the party as it surges to record highs in opinion polls, AFP reported.

Robert Sesselmann, a lawyer and regional lawmaker, came out on top in a closely watched runoff vote for district administrator in Sonneberg in the central state of Thuringia, near the border with Bavaria.

Sesselmann won 52.8 percent of the vote, according to the electoral office.

The victory came despite appeals from mainstream parties for voters to rally behind the incumbent candidate, Joergen Koepper from the conservative CDU.

With only around 57,000 people, Sonneberg is one of Germany's smaller districts, but the landmark victory makes it the first to be run by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

AfD, which was formed in 2013, entered Germany’s national parliament with 12.6% of the vote in 2017, and is currently level in the polls with Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats as discontent with the government grows.

The party has a history of controversial statements, particularly surrounding the Holocaust. Hoecke caused a firestorm in February of 2017 when he suggested that Germany should end its decades-long tradition of acknowledging and atoning for its Nazi past.

AfD chairman Alexander Gauland in 2018 described the Nazi period as a mere "speck of bird poo in over 1,000 years of successful German history".

He had previously asserted, however, that Jews should not fear the strong election showing by AfD and indicated that he was ready to meet with German Jewish leaders “at any time.”

Sunday’s milestone comes as recent surveys put support for the AfD at a record 18 to 20 percent, neck-and-neck with Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats and behind only the conservative CDU/CSU bloc, according to AFP.

The AfD is polling even better in the former communist East German states of Thuringia, Brandenburg and Saxony, which will see regional elections next year where the AfD is hoping to score major breakthroughs.