Germany's conservatives can hardly believe their luck. So often in the past years, they have stood there together at party headquarters on election night watching the little black bars on the screen stop too short. They have shaken their heads, aghast in the face of devastating losses. And now? They shake their heads briefly again, some looking around aghast. But this time it's because it all seems too good to be true.
More than 42 percent -- it's the party's best showing in 23 years. "Today we can truly be happy," said Chancellor Angela Merkel, the incumbent chancellor and leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "Overwhelming," said her party deputy and Germany's labor minister, Ursula von der Leyen. CDU politician Armin Laschet lauded "a day unlike any we've had in years." In the foyer of the party's headquarters in Berlin, the party's youth wing sang the German song, "Oh, wie ist das schön" (translation: "Oh how beautiful it is"). A few floors above them, the party's Team Deutschland campaigning organization was trading hugs with the advertising agency that they collaborated with.
In the last two elections in 2005 and 2009, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), each had to cope with major losses at the polls. More than a few of Merkel's party cohorts held her responsible back then: her nudging of the party to the left, her strategy of lulling voters and her political opponents to sleep. Now these very political opponents -- but also many CDU and CSU members -- are rubbing their eyes in astonishment.
Just one week after Horst Seehofer helped the CSU pull in an absolute majority in Bavaria, Merkel has restored pride in the rest of the two-party union -- and that with an election campaign that was tailored solely to winning her the chancellorship. Voters who had migrated to the Free Democrats in 2009, helping them secure record numbers at the polls, obviously returned to the fold.
In the past few weeks, the FDP had sought to save itself by encouraging CDU and CSU votes to cast their second vote for the junior coalition parter , but the campaign failed to bear fruit. The FDP is now going through what the Social Democrats already experienced in a coalition with Merkel's conservatives. They are leaving the government as a pale approximation of their former selves. Welcome to Angieland!
As results trickled in on Sunday night, it looked increasingly unlikely that Merkel's party would achieve the absolute majority needed to govern alone -- a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Konrad Adenauer's chancellorship from 1957 to 1961. Instead, the numbers suggest that the conservatives will be forced to look for a new coalition partner.
Graphic: Preliminary final election results
The most likely candidate is the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). "The ball is in Frau Merkel's court," said SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück. But such a pairing would be a bitter pill for the conservatives to swallow: to see an increase of more than eight points only to end up in a so-called "grand coalition" with their left-leaning rivals. Despite their strong position, many conservatives fear that an alliance with the Social Democrats would be much less stable now than it was from 2005 to 2009.
Theoretically there is an alternative: The conservatives could form a coalition with the Green Party. In fact, some conservative strategists think such an alliance would be more stable than a grand coalition. The scenario was quietly discussed at the CDU's party headquarters in Berlin on Sunday night. When Merkel initiated Germany's phase-out of nuclear power after Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011, she removed the last major ideological barrier between the two parties -- but the current campaign has also carved out new divisions. It's hard to imagine the CSU grandees sitting down to discuss an alliance with leading Green Party member Jürgen Trittin after peppering him with grave accusations in the Greens' ongoing pedophilia scandal .
Merkel, for her part, kept her cards close to her chest on election night when it came to discussing "how we will proceed further." But there was one card she was happy to play: She will serve the full third term and remain chancellor until 2017. Upon hearing this, crowds of her supporters at the party headquarters erupted into cheers. Meanwhile, the other parties can only hope that in four years time, the era of Merkel will finally be over.