Chancellor Angela Merkel was chastised by German voters who elected her to a fourth term with her party’s worst result since 1949, after an election that lifted a far-right party into parliament in a sign of the growing polarization in Europe’s biggest economy. Sunday’s federal ballot saw support for the two main parties — Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led bloc and Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats — sink to historic lows as votes flowed to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD. Six parties are now poised to enter the lower house, the Bundestag, for the first time since 1953.
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The principal loser was Schulz’s Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s main challenger, which plunged to a postwar low of 20 percent. The party leadership immediately announced its intention to go into opposition and not renew the so-called grand coalition with Merkel’s party that has governed for the past four years. The AfD outpolled the pro-business Free Democrats, the Greens and the post-communist Left to become the first far-right party in the Bundestag since the immediate postwar period, after it channeled voter rage at Merkel for allowing some 1.3 million migrants to enter the country since 2015.
“Clearly, we had hoped for a somewhat better result,” but “we achieved the strategic targets of our election campaign,” Merkel said at her party’s headquarters in Berlin. Apart from the challenge of the AfD, the task ahead is “first and foremost to ensure economic prosperity” and “to hold the European Union together and build a strong Europe,” she said.
The result offers Merkel one obvious route to govern: adding the environmentalist Greens to a coalition with the Free Democrats, her party’s traditional allies with whom she governed from 2009 to 2013, in a so-called Jamaica coalition — so named as the party colors match those of the country’s flag. While it’s a combination previously untested at national level, such a government was formed this year in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, and the chancellor has kept tabs on the region’s progress ever since.
“Jamaica is doable,” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU state prime minster of Saarland, told broadcaster ZDF.
Even as she faces the most splintered parliament in modern German history, Merkel’s record-equaling fourth consecutive victory in a national election marks a revival of sorts of her political fortunes from the depths of the refugee crisis. It puts Germany’s first female leader and the first from the formerly communist east on track to match former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s record of 16 years in office. All the same, the first task for Merkel, 63, is to forge a coalition that enables her to govern, a process that’s likely to take months. Once a government is in place, Merkel will face huge global expectations — from shoring up the euro area together with France, to setting Europe’s tone in its dealings with the U.S. under President Donald Trump, and tackling the diesel-emissions crisis that threatens Germany’s dominance in producing luxury cars.
The better-than-forecast performance of the Free Democrats allows them to re-enter the Bundestag after a four-year absence. While there is speculation that the FDP’s relatively hardline stance toward Europe could threaten efforts to work with French President Emmanuel Macron on euro-area integration, “this argument is often overdone,” according to Holger Schmieding and Florian Hense at Berenberg in London, who said the party’s views would likely moderate over time.
“Jamaica is the best solution by a long way,” Schmieding said in an interview. While putting together such a coalition wouldn’t be easy, he predicted that it wouldn’t materially alter Merkel’s policy on Europe.
Schulz’s defeat means the Social Democrats haven’t won an election since 2002. A former president of the European Parliament, Schulz, 61, appeared a formidable contender when the SPD pulled virtually even with Merkel’s bloc soon after he entered the race in January. But his surge quickly faded and he failed to convince voters to turn their backs on Europe’s longest-serving leader, who projected herself as a force for stability in a world buffeted by concerns from North Korea’s atomic weapons program to uncertainty over the U.S. direction under Trump. The AfD’s two lead candidates, Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland, reveled in provocations as they capitalized on the legacy of Germany’s biggest refugee influx since the war.
Founded as an anti-euro party opposed to financial bailouts for Greece and other southern European nations, the AfD narrowly missed out on Bundestag seats four years ago. With new leadership and a campaign focused on immigration — its platform demands shutting the border to new asylum seekers and calls Germany’s Muslim majority “a great danger to our state” — it succeeded in tapping into a well of discontent with Merkel’s policies. “This is in a way a defeat for Merkel — it’s a form of punishment,” Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-Diba in Frankfurt, told Bloomberg Television. “It shows that a lot of people weren’t very satisfied with Merkel. They wanted to teach Merkel a lesson.”