Angela Merkel will serve as Germany's chancellor for a fourth term, but Sunday's win comes at a high price. The right-wing populists are now the third-strongest party in parliament and her negotiations to create a new government are likely to be complicated.
Angela Merkel's election result four years ago was, to be sure, extraordinary. It was clear from the surveys that her conservatives wouldn't be able to repeat it. But a fall like this? Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union (CSU) saw their joint result fall by more than eight percentage points -- their worst showing since 1949. During her first appearance after the election at her party's headquarters, the chancellor said she had, in fact, hoped for a somewhat better result. Those gathered at the headquarters dutifully chanted, "Angie, Angie."
Then things grew quiet again. Nobody waved the German flag. It was a far cry from 2013, when CDU politicians broke out into a spontaneous karaoke session after the results were announced. This time, the prominent members of Merkel's party who had gathered behind her on the stage seemed sobered by the tepid showing.
Merkel can keep her job as chancellor, the "strategic goal" has been achieved, as Merkel refers to it. But it comes at a high price. Voters have severely punished the parties of the current governing coalition, with Merkel's conservatives losing dozens of seats in parliament. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) will now enter parliament with a strong, double-digit result. And it will be extremely difficult for Merkel to build a government coalition that will be stable for the next four years.
The AfD: There won't just be a sprinkling of renegades representing the AfD in parliament. The right-wing populists will be the third-largest party in the Bundestag and they have announced their intention to "chase down" the chancellor as one of the party's two leading candidates expressed it on Sunday. The election campaign already gave a taste of what might be coming, with AfD supporters loudly venting their hatred and anger at events held by Merkel's CDU.
Merkel, who isn't known for being the world's best public speaker, will now be confronted by them on a daily basis. And the conservatives will also have to ask themselves what share of the responsibility they carry for the AfD's success. What can they do to win back disappointed voters? More than a million voters are believed to have flocked from the CDU and the CSU to the AfD. And most of them say that it was the chancellor's refugee policies that led them to vote for the right-wing competition.
It's little wonder, then, that Merkel has identified the enduring regulation of refugee flows and domestic security as the key topics for the coming years. She said on Sunday that she wants to win back voters from the AfD and described the party's move into the Bundestag as a "major new challenge."
The CSU: CSU head Horst Seehofer has a pretty clear opinion on how to succeed in diminishing the AfD's fortunes moving forward. He wants to use "clear positions" to close the "open right flank" of the CDU and CSU. But that pledge to shift the conservatives to the right could also create new fault lines between the CDU and CSU.
The CSU faces state elections in Bavaria in 2018 and support for the party collapsed on Sunday. Ahead of the election, the CSU and CDU had managed to put thin bandage on the issues that divide them -- such as the CSU demand for an upper ceiling on the number of refugees taken in by Germany. But those wounds are likely to reopen in the coming weeks.
Creating the next governing coalition: Social Democratic officials left no opportunity unused on Sunday night to declare that they are not interested in carrying on as Merkel's junior coalition partners. Mathematically, it would be possible for the parties to govern together, a visibly irritable Social Democratic chancellor candidate Martin Schulz said on Sunday. But politically it would not be.
A few CDU representatives, including Merkel herself during a television discussion between all lead candidates on Sunday evening, appealed somewhat half-heartedly to the Social Democrats' political responsibility to the state. But it appears that Merkel's sole path to a majority is a coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens.
At the same time, forging a government coalition comprised of four different parties -- the CDU, CSU, FDP and Greens -- will be no easy task. From refugee policies to climate protection and the common European currency, there are plenty of differences between the parties to discuss. Still, CDU leaders did express relief on election night that both the FDP and Greens had achieved solid results. That may make it easier for the two parties to accept the responsibility that comes with entering into government.
The successor debate: Who will succeed Merkel? Considering the weak result, this question is likely to arise even more quickly than previously anticipated. Merkel is likely to face a discussion within her party about its future direction -- and not just because of the CSU. Young and ambitious party leaders like Jens Spahn are also likely to ask what direction the party needs to take in order to bring it closer to the kind of election results it used to enjoy.
The evening that Angela Merkel secured her fourth term in the Chancellery could also mark the beginning of the debate over who will one day inherit the office from her.
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