Chancellor Angela Merkel may have won Germany’s national election on Sunday, but her Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union faction only won a third of the vote, its poorest showing since 1949.
In another blow to the incumbent leader, German voters also are sending right-wing nationalists to the parliament or Bundestag for the first time in 60 years.
Exit polls suggest that decision was more of a protest vote than a German shift to the right.
But the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), which Merkel said nabbed 1 million of her voters, was jubilant about its better-than-expected returns of 12.6 percent across Germany, where an estimated 76 percent of registered voters turned out.
In eastern Germany, where Merkel grew up, the right-wing nationalist party did even better, earning 21.5 percent of the votes.
At a post-election party, Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s top leaders and a new member of Parliament, vowed to hunt down Merkel and anyone else who stands in the way of AfD’s agenda. What that agenda entails is a matter of some debate.
AfD spokespeople claim their goal is a sensible immigration policy and getting Germany out of the Eurozone so that German taxpayers stop paying for bailouts of other European countries that use the currency. Another AfD leader and new member of Parliament, Alice Weidel, has also vowed to start a parliamentary inquiry into Merkel and her refugee policy.
But the right-wing group’s many critics – including every other party headed to the Bundestag – accuse AfD of deep-rooted xenophobia, anti-Semitism and having a nationalist agenda that threatens to tear Germany apart.
At a televised debate in Berlin on Sunday night, those parties pointed out Gauland’s speech earlier this month, when he called on Germans to be proud of what their soldiers achieved during the First and Second World Wars.
During the televised debate, Merkel vowed there would be “hard confrontations” between her faction and the AfD in Parliament.
And within the AfD on Monday, internal squabbles erupted as well, when one of its co-chairs, Frauke Petry, walked out on an AfD press conference after saying she had no interest in serving in Parliament with the rest of her party’s ticket. She suggested she would start her own version of the party, but without the extremist rhetoric.
“I’m happy we won because for 4 1/2 years, we worked hard to get into the Parliament,” she told German Public Television ARD. “But unfortunately, our party frightens too many voters. We have in Germany an estimated 30 percent of voters who want sensible, conservative policies and can’t find anyone to provide them, so I am available to fulfill that role.”
Merkel says a top task on her agenda is to win back AfD voters to her conservative faction.
But she first must partner with one or more of the other parties in the next Parliament to begin her new term as chancellor. That will be a difficult negotiation that Merkel says could last until Christmas — or longer.
Martin Schulz, the leader of Merkel’s most recent coalition partner, the Social Democrats, said in no uncertain terms that it won’t be his party. His SPD ran on a social justice platform aimed at easing income disparity and improving welfare benefits and education, but it didn’t persuade voters. The party had its poorest showing in many decades.
During the TV debate on Sunday night, Schulz blamed the loss on Merkel.
“This grand coalition was voted out,” he said. “It’s clear the people don’t want it and the role that’s been assigned us is to be the opposition.”
Merkel fired back she was “sad the good work we did in the grand coalition is now being characterized this way.”
She had campaigned on her record as a highly respected leader not only in Germany, but also internationally. She highlighted the country’s record-low unemployment and strong economic growth under her leadership. But German unhappiness over the long-time leader’s refugee policy — which allowed more than a million asylum seekers into the country since 2015 — was something from which Merkel never fully recovered.
“Merkel has become a very polarizing figure, something she never envisioned for herself, never saw happening,” said Merkel biographer Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of Germany’s daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “As much as she pushed to the center on the refugee issue and brought in the left part of electoral voters in her camp,” he said, she lost voters to the right of the spectrum.
As early as this week, Merkel’s faction will start talks with two possible coalition partners: The pro-environmental Green party and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, which Merkel said won 1.3 million voters from her faction.
The Green party and Free Democrats are hardly natural allies.
Merkel says under no circumstances will she ask the other two winners — the Left Party, which is the successor to the East German communists, and the AfD — to be in her government.
But even though Merkel and other mainstream politicians in Germany want to isolate AfD, they won’t be able to ignore the party completely.
The right-wing party last year helped shift the debate on asylum seekers from one over integration into German society to one focused on increasing and speeding up deportations.
There is one thing Merkel and AfD more or less agree on: the need to engage the Trump administration. The right-wing nationalists have said they see a kindred spirit in President Trump, even if AfD’s lead candidate Alice Weidel criticized his Twitter habit at a recent news conference
Merkel, during her only televised debate during the campaign, said Germany must work with the U.S. on issues like ISIS and Afghanistan and that despite their differences on diplomacy, trade and climate change, she will do her best to find common ground with the American leader.