Analysis

Germany Elections: A Catastrophe for Angela Merkel, Who Is Left With Few Options

The numbers show that many Germans have lost trust in Merkel's leadership - now she is left with a sole and difficult-to-manage coalition option to stay in power

German Chancellor awaiting exit poll results at her party's headquarters in Berlin during the general election on September 24, 2017.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

Angela Merkel waited longer than any other lead candidate on this election eve to appear before her supporters: more than 50 minutes, an eternity for the winner of any German election. And the speech she finally gave on Sunday shortly before 7 P.M. German time was not at all that of a winner.

In fact, the German chancellor of 12 years sounded uncharacteristically harsh in her first reaction: “We had expected a better result,” Merkel shouted without a smile over the crowd chanting "Angie! Angie!" at her party’s Berlin headquarters. And then, almost stubbornly: “Nobody can form a government against us!”

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But if Angela Merkel is actually able to form a government, given the result, and if so, when, has surprisingly become the biggest question on this election eve. “Tectonic shift” and “breaking point” were the most used words by politicians and journalists in Berlin tonight. “Merkel dawn” was another. And indeed, both Angela Merkel and her country are now facing a most unstable time.  

Twenty minutes before the chancellor’s statement, Martin Schulz, Merkel’s contestant, announced in a moving address that his Social Democrats (SPD) would no longer be a partner in a Grand Coalition for Merkel – closing the door for one of the only two arithmetically and politically possible options for Merkel to form a new government. With a trembling voice, Schulz declared that the country now needs a strong opposition that can challenge the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the big winner of this election. “No democrat can simply skate over this result,” Schulz said. “We as Social Democrats will fight with all our energy for our values and our principles, namely tolerance and respect and community spirit.” 

A demonstrator holds a poster as German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves after a TV talk of the party leaders in Berlin, following Germany's parliament elections, September 24, 2017.
Gero Breloer/AP

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For Merkel, this only leaves one option for a government: a so-called “Jamaica” coalition between her own Christian-Democratic Union, the Free Democrats and the Green Party, named after the parties' respective colors of black, yellow and green. It is an explosive combination that has never been tried on a federal level and has only once been attempted at all, this June, in a small state. For very good reason: The three parties are far from each other, both culturally and in their policy ideas.

One example: Influential Green Party parliamentarians, amongst them the lead candidate Cem Özdemir, have demanded as a core condition for a Jamaica government that combustion engines will be banned as of 2030 in Germany. Both Merkel’s CDU and the Free Democrats have absolutely ruled out that attack on the country’s important car industry in their election campaigns. And while their lead candidates, Özdemir and Christian Lindner, may be getting along, the personnel of the Free Democrats and the Green party have traditionally been red rags for each other. “We will be difficult partners,” is a sentence that both parties have used often on election night.

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Observers expect therefore that it may take many months to negotiate a new government, perhaps even until January or February 2018, leaving the country in turbulence and standstill. And even if Merkel manages to bring together an agreement, the Jamaica option with two strong and opinionated partners is much harder to govern for her. It will weaken her position both in Germany and abroad, and it is for sure not the coalition that Merkel had hoped for in her last term as chancellor. 

Besides, most Germans do not want a Jamaica government. In a first poll by opinion poll institute “Infratest dimap” tonight, only 23 percent of voters said they would approve of such a coalition. Accordingly, important voices from Merkel’s CDU have already called for the Social Democrats to reconsider pulling out of the Grand Coalition, especially because many fear the new player in parliament, the AfD will use this unstable time to broaden its influence.

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The AfD’s strong result, 13 percent, came as a shock to all established parties. But it is Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union that has the most analysis to do: more than one million Germans, who voted for the AfD, are usually voters for her CDU/CSU. No other party lost that many votes to the extreme far-right. Exit polls show that it is not conviction for a far-right ideology, but frustration that has driven many of these voters away from established parties: sixty percent of AfD voters said that they cast their vote for the party out of frustration, almost 50 percent of all total voters said that they feel that the AfD understands better than any other party that they do not feel safe in Germany anymore. Over a third welcome that the party wants to limit Islam’s influence in the country and the influx of refugees and immigrants. 

There is hope that these people will turn their back on the AfD again eventually: More than 2,000 people spontaneously demonstrated against the party in front of the AfD election party on Sunday night already. But many observers fear that an uncertain Jamaica government and a weakened Chancellor, who has received the worst election result for her party since 1949, may well empower the far-right party even more. 

Indeed, the party’s candidates have shown themselves triumphant already: In contrast to Merkel’s long wait to make a statement, AfD candidate Alexander Gauland was the first to take the stage on election eve: Barely four minutes after the first prognosis he yelled over a roaring crowd of supporters: “We will hunt them down. We will hunt Ms. Merkel or whoever is in the government down! And then we will reclaim our country and our people!”