BERLIN – After 16 years of Angela Merkel as Chancellor, the Germans dispersed their voices across the political spectrum on Sunday in elections to replace her, a fractured return that heralds a more complicated political era in Germany and weaker German leadership in Europe.
The preliminary official results gave the center-left Social Democrats a 1.6 percentage point lead, a result so close that no one could yet say who would be the next chancellor or what the next government would look like.
The only thing that seemed clear was that it would take weeks, if not months of haggling to form a coalition, leaving Europe’s largest democracy hanging in a kind of limbo at a critical time when the continent is still struggling to recovering from the pandemic and France – Germany’s partner in the heart of Europe faces confrontational elections next spring.
Sunday’s elections marked the end of an era for Germany and for Europe. For more than a decade, Merkel was not only the German Chancellor, but also the leader of Europe. She guided her country and the continent through successive crises and thus helped Germany to become the leading European power for the first time since two world wars.
Its tenure was characterized above all by stability. His center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, ruled in Germany for 52 of the 72 postwar years, traditionally with a smaller party.
But the campaign proved to be the most volatile in decades. Armin Laschet, Merkel’s Christian Democrats candidate, was long seen as the frontrunner until a series of blunders compounded by his own unpopularity eroded her party’s lead. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic candidate, was completely eliminated before his stable personality led his party to a spectacular 10 point comeback. And the Greens, who briefly dominated the polls at the start, fell short of expectations but recorded their best ever result.
On Sunday, the vote share of the Christian Democrats slumped to well below 30%, heading for the worst performance in their history. For the first time since the 1950s, at least three parties will be needed to form a coalition – and the two main parties plan to hold competing talks to do so.
“It’s so unprecedented that it’s not even clear who is speaking with whom on whose invitation on what, because the Constitution has no safeguards for such a situation,” Thomas said. Kleine-Brockhoff, Berlin-based Vice President of the German Marshall Fund. , a research group.
Even before the first official returns were announced, the battle lines were drawn as the two main contenders for Merkel’s succession as chancellor announced their demands for the top post – and their intention to fight for it. that. A long tradition of deferential and consensual politics quickly evaporated, giving way to a more hoarse tone.
At the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Berlin, loud cheers erupted at the announcement of the first exit polls. “The SPD is back! Lars Klingbeil, the party’s general secretary, told the crowd of party members, before Mr Scholz took the stage with his wife and insisted “that the next chancellor is called Olaf Scholz”.
Across town in the Tory seat, Mr Laschet, the candidate for Ms Merkel’s party, made it clear who he believes should be the next chancellor, saying: “We will do everything to form a government. .
It’s a messy set of circumstances that can complicate negotiations to form a government. And whoever ends up being chancellor will not only have a weaker tenure, but less time to devote to leadership in Europe, analysts said.
“Germany will be absent in Europe for a while,” said Andrea Römmele, Dean of the Hertie School in Berlin. “And whoever becomes chancellor is likely to be much more distracted by domestic politics.”
The election result gives significant weight to the two small parties that will almost certainly be part of a new government: the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. Courted by both Mr. Scholz and Mr. Laschet, they indicated that they would talk to each other first.
“Two chancellors and two kingmakers” read a headline from German public broadcaster ARD.
In a way, Sunday’s statements were an expression of voters’ disorientation over the departure of Merkel, who is stepping down as her country’s most popular politician.
The Chancellor has overseen a golden decade for Europe’s largest economy, which has grown by more than a fifth, pushing unemployment to its lowest level since the 1980s.
While the United States was distracted by multiple wars, Britain bet its future on a referendum to leave the European Union and France had not reformed, Merkel’s Germany was above all a haven of stability.
“She was a steady hand at the helm, a constant presence,” said Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund.
“Now there is unease over what will follow,” he said. “The presence and reputation of this chancellor is disproportionate and very difficult to emulate.”
This explains why the two main contenders for his succession have mainly run on platforms of continuity rather than change, trying wherever possible to signal that they would be closest to the outgoing Chancellor.
“This election campaign was basically a contest to find out who could look the most like Merkel,” Kleine-Brockhoff said.
Even Mr Scholz, whose center-left party is the traditional opposition party to Ms Merkel’s conservatives, has played his role as finance minister in the outgoing government rather than the sensibility of his own party, which is much to left of his.
“Stability, not change, was his promise,” Kleine-Brockhoff said.
The distinctive political tradition of the Federal Republic of Germany is change by consensus.
During the four decades that it was separated from the Communist East, West Germany had strong governments, traditionally formed by one of the two major parties joining forces with a smaller partner or, in de rare circumstances, the two major parties forming a grand coalition. This tradition continued after reunification in 1990, with far-reaching changes – like the labor market reforms of the early 2000s – often carried out with support across the aisle.
But four parties became seven and the two main traditional parties shrank, changing the arithmetic of forming a government that represents more than 50 percent of the vote. Going forward, analysts say, three or four parties, not two, will need to find enough common ground to govern together.
Some analysts argue that this growing fragmentation of the German political landscape has the potential to revitalize politics by bringing more voices into the public debate. But it will undoubtedly make governance more difficult, as Germany becomes more like other countries in Europe – including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands – which have experienced a similar divide. And a messier policy could weaken the next chancellor.
Ms. Merkel embodied the tradition of consensus more than perhaps any of her predecessors. Out of her four terms, she spent three in a grand coalition with her party’s traditional opponents, the Social Democrats.
Governing as Merkel’s junior partners almost killed the Social Democrats, Germany’s oldest party, stripping it of its identity and its place as spokesperson for the center-left opposition. But Mr Scholz used his warm relationship with the Chancellor to his advantage, effectively showing up as the titular in a race without one.
At party headquarters on Sunday night, he was celebrated as a savior by party members who were adamant that the Chancellery was theirs.
“The SPD is the winner here,” insisted Karsten Hayde, long-time party member, while Ernst-Ingo Lind, who works for a parliamentarian, said that only a year ago he “didn’t would not have dreamed of being here “.
Among the parties represented in the next German parliament is the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which shocked the nation four years ago by becoming the first far-right party to win seats there since World War II. . Its share of the vote has fallen to 10.5% from nearly 13% in 2017 and it will no longer be the main opposition party in the country. But it has solidified its status as a permanent force to be reckoned with. In two states of the former Communist East, it came first.
“We are here to stay, and we showed it today,” Tino Chrupalla, co-party leader, told party members gathered on the outskirts of Berlin.
Despite all the chaos of this election and Merkel’s nostalgia, many Germans rejoiced that more than eight in ten voters had voted for a centrist party and the turnout was high.
The mobilization was palpable in front of several polling stations in Berlin, where families waited patiently for their turn in long lines.
“This is the start of a new era,” said Ms. Römmele of the Hertie School.
Christopher F. Schuetze, Jack Ewing and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.