The headlines of American newspapers today will read, “German Chancellor Angela Merkel decidedly wins fourth term.” I saw tweets boasting the re-election of the “leader of the free world” from liberals in the United States.
While that accurately depicts the results of the election, it doesn’t convey the undertone of that win. To give you an idea, when the results of exit polls were released at 6 p.m. Sunday night, the Social Democrats watch party I attended went silent.
The results are much more complex and troubling to Germans, casting a somber tone to Merkel’s victory. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) were largely expected to roll in 40% of the vote. Instead, they brought in just 33%. That still makes them the largest party in the German Bundestag (parliament), however, by far less of a margin than in years past.
Their former grand coalition partner, the Social Democrats Party (SPD), was predicted to bring in just 20% of the vote. That’s a huge drop and a virtual implosion for a party that earlier this year was supposed to give Merkel a contest when they selected former European Union parliament president Martin Schulz to run for chancellor.
Merkel will remain Chancellor of Germany, but the question is who will the CDU team with to form a government? I was at the SPD watch party last night where Schulz told his supporters that SPD absolutely would not form another coalition government with the CDU and would take the role of opposition party. DW has a great explainer of what that means here.
The prediction is that the conservative CDU will team with two fringe parties that made significant gains in this election: The Greens and the Free Democratic Party. However, there’s a lot of doubt as to whether this “Jamaica” coalition would work.
The most surprising part is the large amount of support for the Alternative for Deutschland—the far-right, anti-refugee, nationalist party. (The BBC has more on their platform here.) The AfD needed 5% to get into the Bundestag, was polling at 10%, and ended up with 13% in exit polls. This means they’ll have around 87 seats in the parliament. Germany hasn’t seen a party with these sorts of views since 1930 and that’s deeply troubling to most Germans. In fact, last night on the local news they were showing about 100 people protesting the idea that AfD would have any seats in the parliament at all.
I was kind of worried about this sort of result after talking to people around Berlin this week. Many seem tired of the “grand coalition” and seem unable to tell the difference between the two larger parties. I certainly heard from Germans who wanted to send a message, much like some Trump voters wanted to send a message. And much like the U.S. election, it seemed some of the established politicos were out of touch with the sentiment of the people.
The result of the exit polls showed refugees were considered the most important issue — but the second most important issue was pensions (social security). I saw one report last night claiming that something like 60% of AfD voters didn’t necessarily agree with the party’s platform — they just wanted to send a message. (Sound familiar?)
I expect as a result of this election, Merkel will move to the right. On Sunday evening she was already striking a slightly conciliatory tone, stating that she would listen to the concerns of the people. It will be interesting to watch how her policies change in the coming months as she works to keep cohesion among whatever coalition she pieces together from these election results.