Germans Re-Elected Merkel While Boosting Her Opponents

Angela Merkel’s bloc may have underperformed in Sunday’s election, but she still won a fourth term as chancellor. Her Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) alliance garnered 33 percent of the national party vote and about 37 percent of the direct ballots that elect local representatives for each of Germany’s 299 districts.

Angela Merkel will continue into her fourth term as the chancellor of Germany, that much is clear. Who she will form a coalition with, and how the ascension of a far-right party to the parliament will affect the politics of the country, will not be known for some time.

Merkel’s victory, which will be followed by negotiations on forming a governing coalition, came despite a significant political shift: the hollowing out of Germany’s political center. It was shown by the CDU/CSU’s worst performance since 1949, the historic rout of the Social Democratic Party, or SPD, and the accession of the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) to the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, for the first time.

The Rise of the Far Right?

All over Europe, the populist far right has made significant gains over the past two years. Such movements placed second in parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, easily qualified for the presidential runoff in France in May, finished second in presidential voting in Austria and arguably forced last year’s Brexit vote in the U.K. In Germany, the AfD advanced by holding its power base in the east, targeting former industrial cities in the west that are seeing high unemployment and exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment in a country that has taken in more than 1 million refugees in about two years.

With a provisional 12.6 percent share of the votes, the election of far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) can by and large be seen as the result of anger and disillusionment at the government’s handling of the refugee crisis, which in 2015 led to around one million asylum seekers entering the country. A survey has shown that 60 percent of people who cast their vote in favor of the AfD did so, not because they consider themselves supporters of the party, but due to disappointment related to the other parties. In other words, a protest vote.

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Protest or not, the AfD has now been given a mandate to influence policy in Berlin. How Merkel, her party and any future coalition partners handle this, remains to be seen.

With 12.6 percent of the national party vote, the AfD is on track to get nearly 100 seats in the Bundestag, out of more than 700 total, making it the third-largest party. It even managed to win the direct vote in three constituencies, something it wasn’t predicted to do, all of them in the eastern state of Saxony. (Click here for a primer on Germany’s complex election process.)

Notably, the AfD’s populist message appears to have had more resonance with voters than its anti-immigration stance would have predicted. As the maps above show, the AfD’s strongest showings were often in more economically challenged areas, where GDP per capita is lower and unemployment higher than the country on average, rather than regions characterized by a large foreign-born population. The party’s power base in eastern Germany also indicates the areas that have benefited least from the country’s export-driven economic miracle.

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The SPD’s Black Eye

As predicted by the polls, the center-left SPD had its worst showing since World War II, despite leader Martin Schulz’s efforts at distancing the party from its recent role as junior coalition partner to Merkel’s CDU/CSU. While still the second-largest party in the Bundestag, its members may be tiring of junior status, hence Schulz’s decision to lead the opposition rather than enter into another so-called grand coalition with Merkel as chancellor.

Behind the party’s meager performance is a worrying trend: its declining support among blue-collar workers. According to exit polls from Infratest and FG Wahlen, the SPD saw its share of the vote among this group fall by three to six points, and to as little as half its 48-percent showing in 1998. This means that the CDU/CSU is now leading among this group of voters, once a reliable part of the SPD’s core base

Warning Signs for the CDU/CSU

Merkel’s party may have won the election, but this marks the 16th federal vote in a row where no party in Germany has won a majority. It too did worse among workers. The CDU/CSU, in fact, put in one of the lowest showings in its roughly 60-year history. The SPD’s lackluster performance thus makes 2017 the worst year ever for Germany’s two main centrist parties. Combined, they had only 53.4 percent of the national party vote, down from 67.2 percent four years ago and from more than 90 percent in the 1970s.

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