2021-09-27 01:29:29 German Election Results Herald Messier Politics and Weaker Leadership After Merkel

German Election Results Herald Messier Politics and Weaker Leadership After Merkel

BERLIN: After 16 years of Angela Merkel as chancellor, Germans cast their ballots across the political spectrum on Sunday in the election to replace her, heralding a messier political era in Germany and weaker German leadership in Europe.

Preliminary results gave the center-left Social Democrats a small lead, but they were so close that no one knew who would be the next chancellor or what the next government would look like.

The only thing that seemed certain was that it would take weeks, if not months, of wrangling to form a coalition, leaving Europe’s largest democracy suspended in a kind of limbo at a critical time when the continent is still struggling to recover from the pandemic and France — Germany’s partner at the heart of Europe — faces divisive elections next spring.

The election on Sunday marked the end of an era for Germany and Europe. Ms. Merkel was not only Germany’s chancellor for over a decade, but also Europe’s de facto leader. She guided her country and the continent through successive crises, allowing Germany to become Europe’s leading power for the first time since the two world wars.

Her tenure in office was distinguished above all by consistency. Her Christian Democratic Union, a center-right party, has governed Germany for 52 of the 72 years since World War II, traditionally with one smaller party.

However, the campaign turned out to be the most volatile in decades. Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats’ candidate, Armin Laschet, was long considered the front-runner until a series of gaffes compounded by his own unpopularity eroded his party’s lead. The Social Democratic candidate, Olaf Scholz, was all but written off before his steady demeanor led his party to a stunning 10-point comeback. And the Greens, who briefly led the polls early on, fell short of expectations but still achieved their best-ever result.

On Sunday, the Christian Democrats’ vote share fell well below 30%, putting them on track for their worst showing in history. For the first time, three parties will be required to form a coalition, and both major parties intend to hold competing talks in order to do so.

“It’s so unprecedented that it’s unclear who talks to whom on whose invitation about what, because the Constitution doesn’t have guardrails for a situation like that,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

Even before the first official results were released, the battle lines were drawn as both main contenders to succeed Ms. Merkel as chancellor declared their claims to the top job — and their intention to fight for it. A long tradition of deferential, consensus-building politics was quickly fading, giving way to a more raucous tone.

When the first exit polls were announced, the Social Democrats’ headquarters in Berlin erupted in applause. “The S.P.D. has returned!” Before Mr. Scholz took the stage with his wife, the party’s general secretary, Lars Klingbeil, insisted that “the next chancellor is called Olaf Scholz.”

Across town, at the conservative headquarters, Mr. Laschet, Ms. Merkel’s party’s candidate, stated unequivocally who he thought should be the next chancellor, saying, “We will do everything to form a government.”

It is a tangled web of circumstances that is likely to complicate negotiations to form a government. Analysts predict that whoever becomes chancellor will not only have a weaker mandate, but also less time to spend leading in Europe.

“Germany will be absent in Europe for a while,” Andrea Römmele, dean of Berlin’s Hertie School, predicted. “And whoever becomes chancellor will almost certainly be much more distracted by domestic politics.”

With two-thirds of voting districts counted, the Social Democrats appeared to have a slight advantage, with less than two percentage points separating the two major parties. According to analysts, the vote could continue to swing marginally in either party’s favor. Four out of every ten Germans voted by mail-in ballot, which were counted alongside ballots dropped into ballot boxes.

Few expected a dramatic turn that would result in a less ambiguous outcome and eliminate the need for protracted coalition talks.

The outcome gives the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, two smaller parties that are almost certain to be part of any new government, significant leverage. Both Mr. Scholz and Mr. Laschet have indicated that they will first talk amongst themselves.

One headline on the German public broadcaster ARD read, “Two Maybe-Chancellors and Two Kingmakers.”

In some ways, Sunday’s results reflected voters’ confusion over Ms. Merkel’s departure, as she leaves office as the most popular politician in her country.

The chancellor presided over a golden decade for Europe’s largest economy, which grew by more than a fifth while unemployment fell to its lowest level since the 1980s.

While the United States was preoccupied with multiple wars, Britain gambled its future on a referendum to leave the European Union, and France failed to reform itself, Ms. Merkel’s Germany was a haven of stability.

Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund said, “She was the steady hand at the helm, the steady presence.”

“There is now apprehension about what comes next,” he said. “This chancellor’s presence and reputation are enormous and difficult to match.”

That explains why both main candidates to succeed her ran on platforms of continuity rather than change, attempting to signal that they would be the most like the departing chancellor wherever possible.

“Basically, this election campaign was a competition to see who could be the most Merkel-like,” Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff said.

Mr. Scholz, whose center-left party is the traditional opposition to Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, emphasized his role as finance minister in the departing government rather than his own party’s sensibilities, which are far to the left of his own.

“His promise was stability, not change,” Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff explained.

Change through consensus is the Federal Republic of Germany’s distinctive political tradition.

West Germany had strong governments for the four decades it was separated from the Communist East, traditionally formed by one of the two larger parties forming a grand coalition with a smaller partner or, in rare circumstances, the two big parties forming a grand coalition. This tradition was carried on after reunification in 1990, with far-reaching changes — such as labor market reforms in the early 2000s — frequently carried out with bipartisan support.

However, four parties have grown to seven, and the two traditional main parties have shrunk, altering the math of forming a government with more than 50% of the vote. Analysts believe that in the future, three or four parties, rather than two, will need to find enough common ground to govern together.

According to some analysts, Germany’s increasing fragmentation of the political landscape has the potential to revitalize politics by bringing more voices into public debate. However, it will undoubtedly make governing more difficult as Germany becomes more like other European countries, including Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, that have experienced similar fracturing. And a messier political landscape could make the next chancellor look weaker.

Ms. Merkel has embodied the consensus tradition more than any of her predecessors. She served three of her four terms in office in a grand coalition with her party’s traditional opponents, the Social Democrats.

Governing as Ms. Merkel’s junior partners nearly killed Germany’s oldest party, the Social Democrats, stripping it of its identity and place as the leading voice of center-left opposition. Mr. Scholz, on the other hand, took advantage of his close relationship with the chancellor, effectively running as an incumbent in a race without one.

On Sunday night, he was being hailed as a savior by party members who were adamant that the chancellery was theirs.

“The S.P.D. is the winner here,” insisted Karsten Hayde, a longtime party member, while Ernst-Ingo Lind, who works for a parliamentarian, said he would “not have dreamed of being here” a year ago.

The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is one of the parties represented in the next German Parliament, having shocked the country four years ago by becoming the first far-right party to win seats there since World War II. Its vote share fell from nearly 13 percent in 2017 to 10.5 percent this year, and it will no longer be the country’s main opposition party. However, it cemented its position as a permanent force to be reckoned with. It was first in two states in the former Communist East.

“We are here to stay, and we proved it today,” Tino Chrupalla, the party’s co-leader, told party members gathered on Berlin’s outskirts.

Despite the election’s messiness and Merkel nostalgia, many Germans took heart from the fact that more than eight in ten voters voted for a centrist party, and turnout was high.

The excitement was palpable outside several polling stations in Berlin, where families patiently waited in long lines for their turn.

“It’s the start of a new era,” Ms. Römmele of the Hertie School said.

From Berlin, Christopher F. Schuetze, Jack Ewing, and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting.

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German Election Results Herald Messier Politics and Weaker Leadership After Merkel