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Merkel makes history in German vote, but so does far right

The results made clear that far-right populism — and anxieties over security and national identity — were far from dead in Europe

Image Credit: Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Gulf News

Berlin: Angela Merkel won a fourth term as chancellor in elections on Sunday, placing her in the front ranks of Germany’s postwar leaders, even as her victory was dimmed by the entry of a far-right party into Parliament for the first time in more than 60 years, according to preliminary results.

The far-right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, got about 13 per cent of the vote, a significant showing of voter anger over immigration and inequality as support for the two main parties sagged from four years ago.

Merkel won, and the centre held, but it was weakened. The results made clear that far-right populism — and anxieties over security and national identity — were far from dead in Europe.

They also showed that Germany’s mainstream parties were not immune to the same troubles that have afflicted mainstream parties across the Continent, from Italy to France to Britain.

“We expected a better result, that is clear,” Merkel said on Sunday night. “The good thing is that we will definitely lead the next government.”

She said that she would listen to those who voted for the AfD, and work to win them back “by solving problems, by taking up their worries, partly also their fears, but above all by good politics”, she said.

But her comments seemed to augur a shift to the right and more of an emphasis on controls over borders, migration and security.

Despite her victory, Merkel and her conservatives cannot rule alone, making it probable that the chancellor’s political life in her fourth term will be substantially more complicated.

The shape and policies of a new governing coalition will involve weeks of painstaking negotiations. Smiling, Merkel said on Sunday night that she hoped to have a new government “by Christmas”.

The centre-left Social Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partners for the last four years, ran a poor second to her centre-right grouping, and the Social Democrats announced Sunday evening that the party would go into opposition, hoping to rebuild their political profile.

But the step would also make sure that the AfD stays on the political sidelines and does not become the country’s official opposition.

AfD nonetheless vowed to shake the consensus politics of Germany, and in breaking a postwar taboo by entering Parliament, it already had.

Alexander Gauland, one of AfD’s leaders, told party supporters after the results that in parliament: “We will go after them. We will claim back our country.”

Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, both top candidates of Germany’s nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

To cheers, he said: “We did it. We are in the German Parliament and we will change Germany.”

Burkhard Schroder, an AfD member since 2014 from Dusseldorf, was ecstatic. “We are absolutely euphoric here,” he said. “This is a strong victory for us that has weakened Angela Merkel.”

Up to 700 protesters gathered outside the AfD’s election night party, chanting slogans such as “All of Berlin hate the AfD”.

“It’s important to show that it’s not normal that a neo-fascist party got into the German parliament,” said Dirk Schuck, 41, a political scientist at the University of Leipzig.

While both Merkel and the Social Democrats lost significant voter support from 2013, her victory vaults her into the ranks of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, the only postwar chancellors to win four national elections.

The election is a remarkable capstone for Merkel, 63, the first East German and the first woman to become chancellor.

It also represents a vindication of her pragmatic leadership and confidence in her stewardship of Europe’s largest economy and of the European Union itself in the face of populism, challenges from Russia and China, and uncertainty created by the unpredictable policies of US President Donald Trump.

Even so, the advance of the far right was a cold slap for her and her party. The AfD made particular inroads in the former East Germany but also in Bavaria, where Merkel’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, or CSU, has long ruled but lost some 10 per cent of its vote over 2013.

Clemens Fuest, the director of IFO, the Institute for Economic Research in Munich, said that the results showed wide concern about “security, immigration and possible challenges to the German economic model, like globalisation”, he said.

These mattered more than the Social Democrats’ concentration on injustice and inequality, he said.

The other parties should make less of the AfD showing “and instead ask themselves what questions they have not answered” — questions of borders, migration and the pressures on Germany to do more to prop up other countries of the European Union (EU).

Merkel’s conservative bloc won some 32.9 per cent of the vote, sharply down from 41.5 per cent in 2013, the early results showed.

The Social Democrats slumped to 20.8 per cent, a new postwar low, down from 25.7 per cent four years ago.

If the Social Democrats hold to their intention to go into opposition, Merkel will be faced with an unusually difficult task to form a working coalition.

Given the numbers, it would seem that she will have to cobble together her own Christian Democrat-Christian Social Union bloc together with two other parties.

The potential new partners inhabit virtually opposite poles on the political spectrum — the pro-business Free Democrats, who won some 10.4 per cent of the vote, and the left-leaning pro-environment Greens, who won about 9 per cent.

But Hans Kundnani, an expert on Germany with the German Marshall Fund, said Merkel might fail to create the three-party coalition, putting the Social Democrats under great pressure to join another coalition rather than forcing new elections.

To Kundnani, “the big shock is not the AfD”, but the loss of support for Merkel’s conservatives and the increasing fragmentation of German political life.

Germany has a complicated system of proportional representation, in which each voter casts one ballot for their local representative and one ballot for a political party. Those elected locally get their seats.

But the parties’ overall share of seats in parliament is determined by the percentage of votes they win. Turnout was 75.9 per cent, up from 71.5 per cent in 2013, but a long way from the 90 per cent turnout figures of the 1980s.