Germany’s centre-left parties claimed a narrow victory over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition in Germany’s national election Sunday, according to projections from Germany’s ARD and ZDF television networks. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for chancellor of Germany, won with 26% of the vote – just enough to beat out Merkel’s party, which had 23%. The SPD will now form a new government with other left-leaning parties including Die Linke and Greens.
It wasn’t immediately clear what shape her coalition would take after the pro-business Free Democrats walked out on the talks last week. The party’s leader, Christian Lindner, cited irreconcilable differences but left open the possibility of further discussions. While he criticized Merkel’s migration policies as “a haphazard national effort” that “we cannot conduct at a national level”, his party also has differences with the Greens on issues including transport and energy policy.
‘Fragmentation Wins Again’
Support for Merkel’s bloc was lower than at any time since the federal republic was formed in 1949, exit polls showed. The Social Democrats were also hit by their worst result since World War II as voters flocked to smaller parties.
The far-right AfD entered the national parliament for first time and will be a formidable force as lawmakers debate Merkel’s refugee policies and Europe’s future, potentially undermining her authority at home and abroad. The rise of populists across Europe has forced centrist parties into what Macron called “a new logic” of coalition-building that excludes extremes.
Merkel said she had hoped for a better result after matching her party’s best score ever in 2013 with about 42 percent this time around. Die Welt newspaper put the historic low down to Merkel being too slow to respond to voters’ concerns on migration.
“It’s not the hour for goodbye, but Merkel’s star is dimming,” said Edmund Stoiber, a former Bavarian premier who was an ally of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”The message sent by voters in this election is very clear: Things can’t go on like this.”
Merkel’s “open-door” approach allowed about 1 million asylum seekers into Germany in 2015 and 2016 after she decided to keep borders open when other EU nations shut their doors to people fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere. The influx helped fuel support for the AfD party, which entered parliament with almost 13 percent of the vote.
“This result means that Merkel will have to pay a price for her refugee policy,” said former Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber.
“There’s no question that the election result is very disappointing,” Merkel told reporters as votes were still being counted. She added that she has an obligation to make decisions “in the interest of the nation, and not out of my own political self-interest.”
Merkel’s first challenge will be to achieve a working majority in parliament without coalition partners from either side of the political spectrum. That could force her into a minority government or lead to complex negotiations with different parties on each piece of legislation — a major departure from previous coalition governments dominated by her Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. While Merkel has established a good relationship with Macron and helped his campaign by returning a favor from the French presidential vote earlier this year, she’s also facing pressure to include parties on the left in her government.
“People are losing faith in Europe as such,” said Herman Van Rompuy, former president of the European Council and Belgium’s prime minister from 2009-10.”The biggest losers today are those who want to destroy it: we need more federalism instead of less.”
While Merkel isn’t seeking an alliance with France’s anti-euro National Front party, which only had two lawmakers elected after picking up almost 34 percent of votes cast for French parties outside France, she has been pushed toward working with its leader Marine Le Pen. Alternative for Germany has 94 lawmakers, and Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) exceeded expectations in the election, becoming the third-largest party with 13.5 percent of votes cast for German parties outside of Austria, according to initial projections. It’s a sign that Merkel’s accommodative refugee policy is backfiring at home.
“Merkel is defeated,” Marcus Pretzell, an AfD candidate and European lawmaker tweeted.. “This is victory for patriots across Europe.”
The result puts Merkel in a tough spot as she seeks to form her next government while also answering Macron’s call for more EU integration and fiscal reform before the end of year. The Social Democrats were trailing 1 million votes behind Merkel’s bloc, after having ruled out an alliance with AfD.
“This is a big shift in the political landscape, it’s clear that Merkel will see this as a slap to her power and authority,” said Carsten Nickel at Teneo Intelligence. “She’ll be very careful how she governs.”
More Europe With Macron?
The chancellor said she wants to win back voters who abandoned her party for Alternative for Germany, or AfD. To make sure they don’t drift further rightward, Merkel may now advocate giving up national sovereignty to Brussels to strengthen the European Union after French President Emmanuel Macron campaigned on just that issue. The result puts pressure on Merkel over how much influence she gives anti-immigration parties like Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD).
“The fact that Merkel is weakened means the AfD will have more influence,” said Henning Meyer, research fellow at London’s UCL. “This is a strong symbolic victory for the far-right in Germany.”
Merkel has managed to emerge relatively unscathed after 12 years in power by lining up potential coalition partners before calling elections. After trying and failing to form an alliance with Green and Free Democratic parties after the 2013 vote, she turned to Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel who agreed to enter into formal coalition talks. They were stymied by members of his own party who forced him out as its head this year, leaving Merkel without a majority again.