Angela Merkel may have been re-elected to a fourth term in office, but the chancellor faces a tough road ahead: Significant setbacks for her conservatives combined with a strong right-wing populist showing and what promises to be an unwieldy governing coalition will test the country's political resilience. BY DER SPIEGEL Staff
You can generally rely on the youth wing of Germany's conservatives, even in difficult times. As the results of the first exit polls got released at 6 p.m. Sunday and flickered on a screen at the Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) national headquarters in Berlin, the next generation of conservatives practiced the same kind of denial of reality that the chancellor would display only a short time later. The election result for the party is devastating -- with only 33 percent of voters casting ballots for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), this is the second-worst election result in the conservatives' history. Even so, the young men and women celebrated as though Angela Merkel had just enjoyed a landslide victory.
Upstairs on the sixth floor, where there are no cameras present or any need to play things down, a different atmosphere was palpable. By 5 p.m., Merkel and her fellow party members knew that the election result would be catastrophic. Up to that point, pollsters had been predicting the party would garner between 34 and 37 percent of the vote. That wouldn't have been thrilling, but it would have been a result the party could explain to voters. And then came the shock: 33 percent or possibly less -- nobody had predicted such a lousy showing.
At first, no one said anything. The state governors, government ministers and members of the conservatives' national committee who had gathered all waited to see how the chancellor would react.
A Chancellor in Denial
"We are going to hold our line," Merkel said.
She had already decided on the language that would be used that afternoon -- that the CDU had achieved all its strategic goals. That it had scored more votes than any other party and that it had the mandate to form a government. During a TV discussion with heads of all the national parties broadcast live just after the first results came out, Merkel said she was "not disappointed" with her party's showing.
Seldom has Merkel bent the truth so far.
At shortly after 6 p.m., Monika Grütters, the federal commissioner for culture and media, could be seen walking around party headquarters with an ashen face. Like many other CDU candidates, she wasn't even sure at that point she would be re-elected to her seat in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. Grütters was deeply disappointed, but Merkel wanted to prevent a panicked atmosphere within the party at all costs. She obliged all members of the party's national committee, including Grütters, to reconvene at party headquarters after Merkel's TV round. When Grütters argued that she needed to make an appearance before her constituents, Merkel hissed: "You can still go there at 10 p.m." Merkel wanted to go out of her way to demonstrate that the party was celebrating together with its chair.
Even if there was nothing to celebrate. Because the vote came as a shock to the chancellor, marking a major watershed moment for Germany. Never in the history of postwar Germany have the two big-tent, mainstream political parties been punished as badly by voters. It appears that both parties have lost touch with large parts of the population. Protest parties have popped up in Germany time and again, but there has never been one that has succeeded in landing seats in 13 state parliaments. The greatest novelty is that a party that is in parts openly right-wing radical will now be the third-largest in the federal parliament.
For Merkel, who decided to run for a fourth term as chancellor last November, the Alternative for Germany's (AfD) rise is no less than a debacle. With her choice to run, she decided to follow in the footsteps of Helmut Kohl, who governed the country for 16 years. Now the obvious question is whether Merkel made the same mistake that Kohl made in 1994 when he decided to try to carry on as chancellor? At the time, any shrewd member of the CDU knew that Kohl had fallen behind the times. But no one dared rebel against the elder politician.
Is history now repeating itself? Merkel's campaign laid bare all the problems with her as a person and with the way she leads. Merkel long seemed to hover above everything as a kind of nonpartisan chancellor -- which helps explain why many Germans didn't have any strong feelings about her. But that has changed fundamentally since the refugee crisis.
There are many voters -- especially those outside the traditional CDU party base, who considered Merkel's decision not to close the border to be a major humanitarian gesture. But her refugee policies nevertheless polarized people like few other previous political decisions. Now that anger is sweeping into the Bundestag in the form of the AfD. Viewed in that light, the party is Merkel's creature.
One of the reasons Merkel managed to stay in office for 12 years was that the CDU kept shifting further and further to the left and, by doing so, continued to attract new voters. But in politics there is no such thing as a vacuum and it was only a question of time before a new party would establish itself to the right of the CDU, which is what has now happened.
Merkel's election campaign -- conflict-free and with its infamous asymmetrical demobilization -- once again prevented the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) from gaining in votes. Instead, the party fared worse at the ballot box than it did in the last two elections. With 20.5 percent of the vote, it performed more poorly on Sunday than in any other national election in postwar Germany. But AfD voters didn't allow themselves to be coaxed into a slumber. To the contrary. They viewed Merkel's relaxed election campaign, largely free of any substance, as being further evidence of the arrogance shown by a Merkel with her hands securely on the reins of power.
The Beginning of the End for Merkel Era
Now a fierce debate is looming within the CDU and CSU over the conservatives' future strategy. The election indeed marks the beginning of the end of the Merkel era. There are already forces within the CDU who are pushing for a shift in policies. They include Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, Thomas Strobl, who heads the party's state chapter in Baden-Württemberg, but above all Jens Spahn, the party's parliamentary state secretary, who many believe will rise to become the most powerful man in the CDU in the post-Merkel era.
So far, at least, nobody is openly questioning Merkel's authority. But her term in office now has a burden that has never been imposed on any other CDU chancellor. The rise of the Alternative for Germany would be unthinkable were it not for Merkel -- even its name is a reference to the chancellor, playing as it does on her policies for saving the European common currency that she described as being "without alternative." The consequence of those euro rescue policies was the establishment of AfD in February 2013.
Once the crisis in Greece eased, AfD nearly disappeared. But then came Merkel's autumn 2015 decision not to close the borders. The refugee crisis marked AfD's rebirth -- and it simultaneously energized and radicalized the party. The refugees, as the AfD's co-lead candidate Alexander Gauland cynically put it, a were "gift from heaven" for the party.
Now Germany faces what will most likely be the most difficult effort to create a new coalition government it has ever faced. One the one side, it has a CSU that has dramatically plunged in its home state of Bavaria to under 40 percent of the vote. It is now likely to veer sharply to the right in order to fight off its AfD competitors in the Bavarian state elections slated for the fall of 2018. "We had an open flank on the right," says CSU party boss Horst Seehofer. The party now intends to close it. At the same time, the Green Party will not want to be in a government with the Christian Democrats if the CSU has too much power. Seehofer's calls for an upper ceiling on the number of refugees allowed into Germany each year is anathema to them, and their surprisingly strong result will provide the Greens with the courage to resist. "The most difficult partner will be the CSU and not the Greens," says Günther Oettinger, a member of the CDU and also Germany's commissioner on the European Commission in Brussels.
Merkel Also 'Without Alternative'
To make matters worse, Merkel also lacks an alternative she can use as a threat in the event coalition negotiations stall. Following their disastrous showing, SPD leaders have categorically ruled out the possibility of continuing the current grand coalition government that pairs Merkel's center-right conservatives with the center-left Social Democrats. Party leader Martin Schulz is worried about the transition to the opposition, but if he were to pursue the grand coalition option, it is likely he would be pushed out of his leadership role before he even had the chance to utter the words "deputy chancellor." Many within the SPD already believe he is on his way out as the party's leader.
Schulz's problem during the campaign was that voters never took him seriously as a challenger to Merkel. Throughout the campaign, it was never really clear in what ways he was truly critical of Merkel. There was a desire among voters for change, but Schulz proved unable to provide it.
That part fell to the AfD, which celebrated its victory at a nightclub at Berlin's Alexanderplatz, a central square in the capital. Hundreds of police officers cordoned off the skyscraper where the event was held early on Sunday evening, and triumphant members of the party mocked protesters behind the barriers from a terrace on the first floor.
At 6 p.m., as data from the first exit polls could be seen on the television screens, the crowd at the party sang the national anthem and shouted, "AfD! AfD!"
Alexander Gauland, one of the party's two lead candidates, then quickly made clear the kind of tone that could be expected of the party once it is in parliament. "We will hunt Ms. Merkel and we will get back our country and our people." The word "hunt" previously didn't belong to the typical repertoire of democratic customs of politicians in postwar Germany.
Merkel's Period of Reckoning
For the AfD, Merkel is both an object of hatred and their raison d'être. The chancellor has systematically steered her party toward the center over the past 12 years. Together with her current defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, she has ensured that the image of women within the CDU has been changed in enduring ways. They have ensured that party's image of women is no longer of the stay-at-home mom raising her children, but of the career woman concerned with having good child care options. With that shift, Merkel struck a chord with young women. But she also frightened many conservatives. The fact that Merkel also freed the way for a vote on gay marriage in parliament also fits with that image.
A period of reckoning will now begin for Merkel. "Of course, the strategy debate will start again now," says Elmar Brok, a prominent member of the CDU who serves as a member of the European Parliament. But the truth is that this debate never really ended. It simply went dormant because no one wanted to be held responsible for a poor election showing. The first voices of dissent could already be heard on election night. "Of course, you can talk about marriage rights for everyone, but I do not believe this is an issue that is most important to people," says Stanislaw Tillich, the CDU governor of Saxony, the eastern state where AfD is now the leading party, with a slight edge over the CDU.
The debate is likely to be a lot tougher than it was in the legislature period that just ended. And after this election result, no one within the leadership ranks of the CDU and CSU still believes that Merkel will seek yet another term after this. The focus now will be on determining the direction the conservatives will take after Merkel leaves office -- and, of course, who her successor will be.
Both sides -- the conservatives and those who support Merkel -- already began delineating their positions on the night of the election. Even during the election campaign, criticism of the close relationship between CSU party chief Seehofer and Merkel had already grown loud in Bavaria. Now, for reasons of sheer self-preservation, Seehofer will be forced to steer a course to the right again. "We will be very, very adamant in asserting our positions," he says. Meanwhile, Helge Braun, a senior CDU official in the chancellery, says with a sigh, "Dealing with the CSU is not going to get any easier."
At the moment, Merkel herself is not in danger of being deposed. The CDU isn't the kind of party that would topple its chancellor during negotiations to create a coalition government. Besides, who is supposed to replace her? Particularly when it comes to the prospects of the "Jamaica coalition" that is currently the most, or indeed only, scenario, there is no other person in question to lead the party. This is at least true of the right wing of the party. The coalition is so named because the colors associated with the parties in question -- the conservatives (Black), the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP, yellow) and the Green Party -- also happen to match those on the Jamaican national flag.
The Shadow Hanging over Merkel
But Merkel's leadership during the next legislature period is likely to be overshadowed by the question of who will succeed the chancellor. Within the right wing of the party, Jens Spahn, who is also a senior official in the Finance Ministry, is positioning himself. But Merkel herself would prefer to see Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen one day become the guardian of her political legacy.
One reason that it had been difficult to challenge Merkel for so long was that the conservatives' leftward turn had also attracted many new voters to the party. But that changed dramatically with Sunday's vote. The conservatives failed to attract any significant votes from the left camp. Meanwhile, the CDU and CSU lost around 1.3 million votes to the FDP, who now return to parliament after a four-year absence, and around 1.1 million votes to the AfD. But this wasn't a vote in favor of the AfD -- it was a vote against Angela Merkel. Sixty percent of AfD voters stated that they did not cast their ballots for the party out of conviction -- it was out of disappointment. Over 90 percent said they worried about the loss of German culture.
Merkel, to be sure, spent much of 2016 walking back many of her refugee policies, but in the campaign, she acted as though she had never actually changed her approach. "I don't totally understand why you would change your policies to correct errors you have identified but then communicate the impression that nothing has changed," Bundestag President Norbert Lammert of the CDU recently told a small group.
Initially, it looked as though Merkel's strategy would be successful. The CDU surprisingly won state elections in Saarland, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig Holstein earlier this year. CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber tied the voter mobilization largely to the door-to-door campaign he had organized. A handful of skeptics pointed out that SPD mistakes were primarily to thank for the CDU's victory in all three states, but they were discounted as bellyachers.
It was only three weeks before the general election that CDU campaign strategists realized they had misread the national mood. In the televised debate with her challenger, the differences between the chancellor and the SPD were insufficiently clear. And the AfD was profiting handsomely from the perception held by many that all signs pointed toward a repeat of the grand coalition.
Merkel recognized the danger, but she didn't know how to respond. The plans developed by CDU party headquarters envisioned a smooth path to victory for the chancellor and they weren't prepared for surprises. Making matters worse, Seehofer lost his cool.
In mid-September, Bavaria's state interior minister, CSU-member Joachim Herrmann, presented select figures from a set of preliminary crime statistics to the Bavarian state government cabinet. He had intended to go before the press afterward to remark on the reduction in apartment break-ins. But CSU party chief and Governor Seehofer's attention was grabbed by other numbers in the report: an apparent 48 percent rise in the number of rapes in the state, and a seeming 90 percent increase in the number of rapes thought to have been committed by foreigners. Seehofer ordered Herrmann to prioritize those statistics. The problem, though, was that the numbers were quickly criticized by experts as being misleading.
A few days later, Herrmann revisited the statistics, saying the number of "assault-style rapes by single perpetrators" had only risen by a total of 4.4 percent, or three cases. But his correction came too late to eliminate the impression that refugees were responsible for a wave of rapes crashing across Bavaria. Seehofer had unwittingly boosted the AfD's campaign.
The Poisoned Chalice of JamaicaBut there is still hope within the CSU that the poisoned chalice of a Jamaica coalition could still pass the party by. Before the election, Merkel's people had made no secret of the fact that the chancellor's preference was a grand coalition. She is not known for liking experiments. The Germans, too, were skeptical: According to polls, less than a quarter of them are in favor of a Jamaica coalition.
Still Merkel has no other option than to sound out a potential governing coalition with the Greens and the FDP. And in doing so, the weakened chancellor will find herself faced with two self-confident partners. Contrary to expectations and despite an uninspiring campaign, the Greens were able to retain the same share of votes the party received four year ago. And the FDP has managed a triumphant re-entry into the Bundestag behind party head Christian Lindner.
The atmosphere at FDP party headquarters in Berlin was appropriately boisterous when Lindner climbed onto the stage on Sunday evening. There was loud applause and chanting and almost every sentence of the party leader was interrupted by cheers.
Lindner, who already staked his claim to the position of parliamentary group leader on election night, conveyed two messages. First of all: The FDP is back. Second: It has learned from the mistakes of the past, from the bitter defeat four years ago and from the triumph of 2009, which then-party leader Guido Westerwelle quickly gambled away in coalition negotiations and in the first months of the party's partnership with the CDU. For Lindner, the lesson is restraint.
The SPD's decision to move back into the opposition doesn't help the FDP. It makes a Jamaica coalition practically a certainty and limits the party's leverage. "That is irresponsible," complained FDP deputy head Wolfgang Kubicki on Sunday evening.
"The SPD cannot pass the buck to us in terms of responsibility," agreed FDP Treasurer Hermann Otto Solms, one of the experienced parliamentarians now returning to the Bundestag. The FDP, he said, will take its time. "We will not allow ourselves to be conned," he said of the upcoming negotiations with the CDU.
Conservatives likewise don't have the fondest memories of the four years they spent in a coalition with the FDP between 2009 and 2013. Leading Christian Democrats recall with horror the ineptness displayed by Westerwelle and his party. The Chancellery, too, is wary of a repeat.
Inexperienced FDP Lawmakers
Although Merkel respects Lindner's achievement of leading the party back into parliament after four years, there are few things she hates more than disloyalty. She has not forgotten that Lindner threw in the towel as the party's secretary general in 2011 at the height of the FDP crisis. Since then, she has been unsure of how dependable Lindner is when the going gets rough. Given the small majority a Jamaica coalition would have, the CDU leadership isn't eager to be dependent on so many inexperienced FDP lawmakers.
Over at the Green Party, the leadership duo of Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir feel unexpectedly vindicated. Göring-Eckhardt already rhetorically paved the way for a coalition with Merkel's conservatives and the FDP on the night of the election: She repeatedly brought up the party's sense of "responsibility" while she and Özdemir limited their focus to two issues where they hoped to make a significant difference within a Jamaica government: climate protection and social justice. They apparently wanted to set the bar low.
For the left wing of the party, that isn't enough. On election night, left-wing leader Anton Hofreiter unexpectedly took the stage shortly before 8 p.m. The basis for coalition talks, he said, is the "10-point plan we all agreed on together." Then he listed all the points in the plan. "If we reach agreement on the issues, then it will work, and if we don't, then it won't happen!" That is the bar set by the left wing for the party's more practically minded leadership. The next few weeks won't be easy for the Greens.
The potential coalition partners are especially at odds when it comes to domestic security. The CSU, facing a 2018 Bavarian state election, is hoping to use this issue to solidify its bona fides. CSU head Seehofer has indicated that his party will demand the Interior Ministry portfolio. Joachim Herrmann, the state interior minister in Bavaria, was the party's lead candidate for the general election and he already made an appearance at CDU headquarters on election night to start the conversation. The CSU stance, in combination with Lindner's request to once again begin deporting people to "stable regions," even in Syria, will be hard for the Greens to accept. After all, they drew a red line at their most recent party conference: "With us in the government, there will be no deportations into crisis regions that are as unsafe as, for example, Afghanistan is right now."
The diesel motor scandal had also created distance between the potential coalition partners. The Social Democrats weren't particularly interested in weakening Volkswagen and the other automobile companies through drastic punishments or strict conditions. For the Greens, though, the fight against the internal combustion engine is a vitally important issue central to the party's very identity.
But the differences aren't unbridgeable. When it comes to domestic security, several state governments in which the Greens are governing charted a pragmatic course during the refugee crisis. And the disputed question of whether the Maghreb states should be declared secure countries of origin isn't especially pressing at the moment, because the number of asylum-seekers from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are comparatively low. With a relatively skillful distribution of roles, all three coalition partners could use the issue to enhance their profiles.
Reconciling Their Differences
When it comes to other issues, it may be even easier -- for Merkel, at least -- to govern in a three-party coalition. The chancellor, for example, is interested in accommodating French President Emmanuel Macron's request for the establishment of a eurozone finance minister position and a budget for the common currency area. So far, FDP head Lindner is strictly against doing so. The fact that the Greens support Merkel's position, though, could help soften the FDP's stance.
It could ultimately be decisive whether the Greens and FDP will be able to reconcile their differences after an election campaign in which they fought each other tooth and nail. They have some common goals: Both want a new law regulating immigration, both are pushing for more investment in education and both want a dedicated digital ministry and improved support for startups. They also have the same goals when it comes to data protection and LGBT rights.
Even when it comes to cabinet positions, the desires of the Greens and FDP could be compatible. The FDP is hoping for the Finance Ministry, which Kubicki is apparently supposed to head given that Lindner will lead the parliamentary group in the Bundestag. But the name Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, currently a member of the European Parliament, is also circulating as candidate for the Foreign Ministry, though the FDP would hardly be in the position to lay a claim to both ministries. If the party doesn't get the Finance Ministry, it will push for Kubicki as justice minister. Behind the scenes, people are saying that the FDP would still need to include some women. With Nicola Beer, by all accounts, performing well as the party's secretary general and given her lack of sufficient experience to head a ministry, focus has begun shifting to Katja Suding, a prominent figure in the FDP's state chapter in Hamburg.
The Greens are also interested in claiming the prestigious Foreign Ministry, to be led by Katrin Göring-Eckhardt. Since she is part of the party's pragmatic wing, and because a representative of the left wing of the party also needs to become a minister, the Greens have identified Anton Hofreiter as either transport or environment minister. If there are to be three ministerial positions for the Greens, another woman would be included, potentially Claudia Roth as development minister. Party sources say that Cem Özdemir would then become head of the parliamentary group in the Bundestag.
An Opposition Like None other Seen in Germany
Whatever happens, though, the new government will face an opposition, the likes of which Germany has never seen before. The AfD will not view Merkel's coalition merely as a political adversary, but as an enemy to be fought with all means necessary. When deputy AfD-head Beatrix von Storch took the stage late in the evening at the AfD election party, she said her party would now finally ensure a turn to normalcy: "The saying 'refugees welcome' will once again be turned back into what it once was: a saying by left-wing radical crackpots."
Left-wing radicals, crackpots, oath-breakers: Such is the language used by the AfD on the campaign trail in recent months. It was an grating, crude tone that had nothing to do with the AfD that was originally founded by economists in opposition to the European common currency. It was once even known as the "party of professors." Now, though, party functionaries describe Justice Minister Heiko Maas as "the product of Saarland inbreeding," and Angela Merkel as an "old shrew" or "IM Erika," a reference to unproven allegations that Merkel worked as an informant for the Stasi in East Germany. The new AfD chartered buses to haul its supporters to anti-Merkel protests, where they chanted and whistled in opposition to the "dictator."
Such radicalism wasn't just to be found in the party's grassroots, but also among party leaders and senior AfD positions, who insisted to supporters that Germany's very survival was at stake in the election.
The Righward Shift
The party consciously drove the rightward shift: Many leading AfD politicians were around four years ago as well, while lead candidate Alexander Gauland and (still) party co-leader Frauke Petry were part of the party's executive then as now.
Today, the euro issue -- once the party's raison d'être -- is now only accommodated out of a sense of duty. The party of 2017 wants nothing less than a cultural revolution. It depicts itself as the savior of the constitutional state -- "Take Back Your Country" was a slogan on many election posters -- and as the only group that gives "everything for Germany." It is a sentence that was once engraved on the daggers of the Nazi's SA troops.
The Bundestag parliamentary group will mirror the power relations within the AfD: the right wing, which includes right-wing extremists, is dominant. During the campaign, it gained attention for its nationalist mottos and profane insults launched at its opponents. The rest of the party and future parliamentary group is divided into groups of centrist careerists and idealists who ultimately remain powerless.
Most future AfD Bundestag deputies from eastern Germany are part of the party's right wing, especially Stephan Brandner and his fellow Thuringia native Jürgen Pohl. Pohl worked for notorious historical revisionist Björn Höcke and will likely serve as his mouthpiece in Berlin. But economist Alice Weidel, formally the moderate, bourgeois face of the party, showed during the campaign that she is just as comfortable using terms like "Islamization" and "identity-loss."
In all likelihood, lead candidates Weidel and Gauland will lead the parliamentary group. It's unclear how many moderate colleagues will gain access to the inner circle of power, but it's very clear who will be powerless: Frauke Petry.
During the election campaign, she answered "Who else should do it" when asked by DER SPIEGEL about her future as AfD co-chair. Fellow party leaders, though, were puzzled by the response. Even before Monday, there was widespread agreement in the party that she had no chance of remaining on top. Gauland even openly referred to her as a "dead man walking." But at the party's press conference in Berlin on Monday morning, Petry announced that she would not be joining the AfD parliamentary group, preferring to go it alone. It is no doubt the beginning of the end.
As such, the new AfD parliamentary group will initially be preoccupied with the internal divisions that were on full display during the campaign. That didn't, however, seem to scare off voters. AfD supporters can be found among all segments of society and at all income levels. The headlines are dominated by the bourgeois AfD agitators like Höcke, a teacher, Beatrix von Storch, a lawyer, and Alice Weidel, an economist. But the party base also includes hairdressers, tradespeople and blue-collar workers. People who under normal circumstances would have little to do with each other, feel understood in the AfD.
That is one reason the AfD is so hard to grasp for its opponents -- because its members and voters aren't bound by any ideology, but rather by a shared atmosphere. At the first party conference in April 2013, AfD founding father Bernd Lucke told the room: "We are neither left nor right. We don't need an ideological signpost, we only need our healthy common sense."
Lowest Common Denominator
The lowest common denominator of the AfD voters is anger against Merkel. She is responsible for everything, that's something people in the AfD can quickly agree on. The refugees, the euro crisis and even probably the terrible weather.
In Würselen, Doris Harst was staring at the TV screen as initial projections rolled in at 6 p.m. on Sunday evening.
"I don't understand," she says. "What is going on in this country?" Harst, who is 68, is Martin Schulz's older sister and a member of the SPD. She is also in municipal government in Würselen and has been campaigning for her brother in the town center in recent weeks.
Harst says she spoke with her brother as recently as Sunday morning and they talked about the newspaper articles of the last few days, about the "farewells to Martin," as Harst says, and about the predictions. She said Schulz told her: "Just don't worry too much about the reports." And: "Don't worry."
But Harst was still worried, for good reason as it turns out. In the first projections compiled by public broadcaster ARD, the SPD came in at 20.2 percent. Harst grabbed the remote. "I think I'll switch to ZDF," she said, referring to Germany's second main public broadcaster. "On channel two, they always have a bit more." But it didn't help. The host was talking about a historically bad performance for the Social Democrats.
Then her brother appeared on the screen. It is a "difficult and bitter day," Schulz said. It was 6:34 p.m. and Harst was no longer angry, just sad. Fighting back tears, she said her brother is "used to announcing defeats." Then she grabbed her smartphone out of her handbag. "I'll write him a Whatsapp." She typed a few sentences, deleted them, started over again. After 10 minutes, she was done. "I wrote him that we are all behind him," she said.
It is a consolation that Schulz will need. For the SPD, the result is devastating. Not even 21 percent, the worst result of the postwar era for German social democracy. In the east of the country, the party became the fourth-strongest. It looks like an advanced process of erosion and provides further evidence for the grand coalition being toxic for the SPD.
"It was a shock," admitted Rhineland-Palatinate Governor Malu Dreyer. And yet, despite the dramatic numbers the party leadership seemed composed on Sunday evening. In the days before the election, the expectations had been clearly lowered and people had prepared themselves for a historically bad outcome. Now the CDU had lost even more dramatically than the Social Democrats. A further consolation: The Social Democrats had won clearly more directly elected seats than expected. The electoral districts of Ulrich Kelber (Bonn) and Karl Lauterbach (Leverkusen/Cologne) were considered barely winnable. Both candidates won.
Still, party leadership nevertheless quickly agreed after the first projections became known that a continuation of the grand coalition was out of the question and that going into the opposition is unavoidable. During the campaign, party leaders sought to resist the grassroots objection to a continuation of the grand coalition. But it was Martin Schulz himself who indicated to party leadership on Sunday afternoon that opposition might be the better option.
At no point on Sunday evening did the applause for Schulz surge more than when he announced the clean break: "The collaboration with the CDU/CSU ends now!" Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned against slamming the door shut prematurely, but his was a solitary voice.
The leadership debate about future leadership roles was more difficult. Gabriel and Thomas Oppermann, the current head of the SPD parliamentary group, could find themselves on the outside looking in, and Schulz himself already failed in his bid to take over the floor leader role.
Schulz had long remained silent about the future of the parliamentary group, but in the last few days before the election, he began to sound out his odds of, in addition to party chairman, grabbing a position as head of the parliamentary group. He didn't get much positive feedback and even Oppermann, often a close ally of Schulz', sought to dissuade him.
It quickly became apparent that few were willing to grant Schulz that much power after he led the party to its worst-ever postwar election result. Plus, Labor Minister Andrea Nahles had had the parliamentary group position in her sights for a long time now. The relationship between Schulz and Nahles, which had long been cooperative, suddenly clouded.
A Historically Bad Outcome
A long phone conversation last Saturday didn't bring any clarity. Only on Sunday, as the first results came in, did Schulz indicate that he would soften his tone. He said he could imagine Nahles as head of the parliamentary group. A further discussion between the two on Sunday evening didn't finalize things. But with Oppermann also in favor of paving the way for the younger generation, and with Nahles enjoying widespread support within the party, the SPD will likely elect her as its new parliamentary group leader on Wednesday.
Despite the historically bad election outcome, Schulz doesn't need to be worried about his position as the party chairman for now. When he told a small number of close associates that he wanted to push forward a renewal of the party from the top, there was little resistance. Only Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz briefly rebelled and brought up the misbegotten campaign, adding a reminder that the SPD had been as high as 30 percent in the polls earlier this year.
The rest of the party leadership is more interested in harmony for the time being, meaning that Schulz can be certain of broad support for his leadership for the foreseeable future. "Martin Schulz will remain party chairman," decreed Stephan Weil, governor of Lower Saxony, immediately after the first projections were announced on Sunday evening. "We have an interest in stability. And Martin Schulz is a strong chairman."
When it comes to its platform, however, the party will have to reinvent itself -- that is something that everyone has realized. The Social Democrats' political platform is 10 years old, having initially been approved in 2007 in Hamburg. "The SPD has a need to sharpen its profile," says Weil. Together with Thorsten Schäfer-Gümble, head of the party's state chapter in Hesse, Weil has spent years demanding that the party revamp its political priorities. The new platform, he says, should place more of an emphasis on issues such as migration, environment, mobility and the digital workplace, though the fairer distribution of wealth in society will also continue to be a focus.
What, then, is next? Despite the understandable frustration in the party about the election result, it also presents an opportunity. The SPD's decision to go into opposition was the right one for the party. Doing so will allow the party to establish itself as an antipode to the conservatives, particularly now that Merkel's party will be forced to move to the right, even if it does end up in a coalition with the Greens.
That isn't a bad thing. Merkel spent years moving the CDU into the political center, and for good reason. Doing so modernized her party such that it was able to keep up with changes that were already taking place in society at large. Providing broader access to daycare, promoting gender equality and even the elimination of military conscription: None of those moves were sacrifices to the zeitgeist as much as they were simply necessary reforms.
Asking Too Much
But with her refugee policies, Merkel clearly asked too much of the country. She failed to follow up her humanitarian gesture with effective controls on immigration. The result of this mistaken approach is the AfD, a party that will only disappear once conservatives begin paying more attention to voters on the right wing of the democratic political spectrum.
Surveys indicate that many of those who voted for the AfD did so to express their frustration with Merkel's leadership. But they aren't lost to democracy. This election made the AfD strong, but the party didn't achieve all of its goals.
When Leif-Erik Holm, an AfD candidate, read the first exit-poll numbers in an office in his electoral district in Schwerin, he thought the impossible was within reach: Defeating Merkel in her home district. The men surrounding the former radio host raised their champagne glasses and toasted the candidate.
In his attempt to defeat the chancellor, the 47-year-old Holm had traveled throughout the entire country, speaking to fellow party members far to the south and campaigning hard against Merkel. "Let's send her back to the Uckermark," he said repeatedly at campaign appearances, a reference to the region in northeastern Germany where Merkel grew up.
Ultimately, though, Holm was unsuccessful. He was giving an interview to public broadcaster NDR when the numbers for his electoral district came in. Many more voters had cast their ballots for the chancellor than for Holm -- more than twice as many. It was enough to dampen the mood in Schwerin. The men just stood there with arms crossed and disappointment writ large on their faces. No more clapping, no more cheers of "bravo" -- just incredulous silence.
By Melanie Amann, Lukas Eberle, Christiane Hoffmann, Horand Knaup, Anna-Sophia Lang, Veit Medick, Ann-Katrin Müller, Ralf Neukirch, René Pfister, Gerald Traufetter and Steffen Winter
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