- Germany could see a three-party “Jamaica” coalition after its election on Sunday.
- Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost support but are still the largest party.
- The Social Democrats suffered an historic defeat and have ruled out continuing the left-right “grand coalition”.
- The far-right Alternative for Germany has become the third largest party with strong support from the formerly communist East.
- The liberal Free Democrats, Greens and far-left Die Linke share fourth place.
Welcome to our live blog. Our focus today will be on opinion. We won’t be competing with big-name outlets to bring you the latest news, although we will of course report the most important results.
Rather, we’ll be reading German, European and international coverage of the election and share (and where necessary translate) interesting takes.
And we’ll have our own team of contributors to give you their perspective.
Logistics and important figures
- Polling stations opened at 8 this morning and will close at 6 PM Central European Time (two hours from now).
- More than 61 million Germans are eligible to vote.
- Germans cast two votes: one for a candidate in their district and one for a political party. The seats in parliament are filled to reflect the preferences of the overall electorate, so it’s the party votes that matter.
- Voting and counting is done by hand. Electronic voting machines were banned in 2005.
- Last time, turnout was 71.5 percent. The lowest-ever turnout was four years earlier, in 2009, when only 70.8 percent of Germans voted.
The view from the Netherlands
Job Janssen, a former advisor to Germany’s Social Democrats, writes in the NRC newspaper that, whether the Dutch people like or not, Angela Merkel leads Europe and thus the Netherlands.
Germany is the hegemon and Angela our first among equals. But fortunately one we Dutch have a disproportionate influence over. We are Germany’s most important partner in Europe. We are both fanatics for budget discipline, have a similar social market economy, share a love for free trade and believe we are following a humane migration policy.
Dirk-Jan van Baar argues in de Volkskrant that the reason Merkel has been so successful in Europe is that her incrementalist approach is broadly acceptable to most German voters.
But there is a danger in that, he warns: It means that the only alternative to the mainstream consensus is the resentment politics of the aptly-named Alternative for Germany.
Liberal Free Democrats would keep Merkel sharp
Conservative and liberal voters who want to keep the left out of power ought to give the Free Democrats their support.
The Christian Democrats, the party of the quiet middle class, sometimes lean toward complacency. The Free Democrats, the party of entrepreneurs, keep them sharp.
Click here to read more.
Here are our most important stories to help you catch up:
- Everything you need to know: A guide to the German electoral system, the parties, their leaders and the most important issues.
- An overview of possible coalitions: Merkel could renew her alliance with the center-left or switch to a pact with either the liberals or Greens.
- A comparison of the party platforms: The left and right are divided on spending and taxes. On Europe and NATO, it’s the extremists versus everyone else.
- Merkel must be careful not to repeat Clinton’s mistake: In pursuing centrist voters, the German chancellor must take care to protect her right flank.
- Social Democrats need to pick side in culture war: It is impossible to appeal to progressive middle-class and nativist working-class voters at the same time.
World may be disappointed
Liberals hoping Angela Merkel will assume the mantle of “leader of the free world” in the era of Brexit and Trump are likely to be disappointed, I write for America’s Foreign Policy Research Institute. The way Germany will conduct itself on the world stage hinges on which party, or parties, choose to support her.
An alliance with the liberal Free Democrats would be the best outcome for Atlanticists. Both center-right parties want to raise defense spending, support free trade and oppose Russian revanchism.
However, polls do not predict the two will win a majority between them. That could force Merkel either into another grand coalition with the Social Democrats or into a government with the Greens. The two center-left parties oppose higher defense spending, are skeptical about free trade and apologetic of Russia.
Germany won’t lead the free world
It barely looks beyond its own borders, writes Natalie Nougayrède in The Guardian:
The Germans simply don’t want to hear much about the troubles of our times and how to face them: they just want to hunker down and keep on living the good life — which is one of Merkel’s CDU party slogans.
The public mood will make it difficult for Merkel to agree to collective European strategies for Brexit, Trump’s America, Russia, Turkey, the Balkans, climate change, migration, you name it.
Don’t bet on a reinvigorated Franco-German relationship
Arthur Goldhammer, an expert in French politics, argues in The American Prospect that romantic illusions about the nature of the Franco-German relationship lie entirely on the French side.
There is little enthusiasm in Germany for anything that might smack of a “transfer union,” he writes: an arrangement under which German taxpayers would finance investments abroad or accept responsibility for economic stabilization.
Any eurozone budget approved by Germany will therefore be too small to offset downturns elsewhere, much less stimulate new employment in France.
Europe’s problem remains what it has been since on the onset of the economic crisis:
Germany has been spared most of the suffering experienced elsewhere on the continent and German voters see no reason to tamper with success or to coddle the less fortunate.
What to expect tonight
Less than half an hour to go until the polls close. Here’s what to expect tonight:
- The first predictions, based on exit polls, should be published just after 6 o’clock. These predictions are usually pretty accurate.
- Within the hour, broadcasters should have their first projections, based on a combination of exit polling and early voting results from key districts.
- At 8:15, the party leaders are due to join a roundtable discussion hosted by the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF. This is usually where candidates declare victory or admit defeat and talks of forming a coalition begin.
Two things to watch for
We should see the first predictions in about ten minutes. Here are a couple of things to watch for:
- The performance of the Alternative vis-à-vis the Free Democrats. If the former exceed expectations, it will likely be at the expense of the latter, which could make a two-party center-right government impossible.
- How far will the Social Democrats fall? If their support dips below 23 percent, it would be an historic defeat — and put them in no mood to stay in government.
ARD exit poll results key
Here are the exit poll figures from ARD television:
- The Christian Democrats at 32.5 percent support, a little below their average in the polls and down 9 percent from 2013.
- The Social Democrats at 20 percent, down 5.7 percent from four years ago and an historic low.
- The Alternative at 13.5 percent, up 8.8 percent, making it the third largest party.
- The Free Democrats at 10.5 percent, up 5.7 percent.
- The Greens at 9.5 percent, up 1.1 percent.
- Die Linke at 9 percent, slightly below expectations and almost unchanged from four years ago.
Bottom line: All the small parties have gained at the expense of the grand coalition.
ZDF exit poll results
ZDF’s figures are slightly better for the grand-coalition parties. It has:
- The Christian Democrats at 33.5 percent;
- The Social Democrats at 21 percent;
- The Alternative at 13 percent;
- The Free Democrats at 10 percent; and
- The Greens and Die Linke both at 9 percent.
Center-right voters are eager to govern
Conservative and liberal voters are eager to form a center-right government but could live with adding the Greens, according to the latest Deutschlandtrend poll.
The Greens aren’t so keen on a three-party coalition. Only one in two would support a pact with the Free Democrats. But Green party voters are surprisingly supportive of a deal with Merkel: 68 percent would back it, belying the conventional wisdom that the base is less pragmatic than the leadership.
“Jamaica” coalition looks like the only option key
A three-party coalition of Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens looks like the only possibility short of minority government.
Such a combination, unprecedented at the federal level, is nicknamed “Jamaica” because the parties’ colors are black, yellow and green.
Click here to read more.
Schulz not stepping down key
Martin Schulz is not stepping down, saying he feels a responsibility to find a way back for the Social Democrats.
When he announces the end of the grand coalition with the Christian Democrats, the crowd cheers.
Despite the two parties still commanding a majority, the grand coalition has “clearly lost support,” according to Schulz, who predicts a three-party “Jamaica” coalition.
Former interior minister calls for rethink of immigration policy
Former interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, calls for a “fundamental rethink of refugee and immigration policy.”
The loss of conservative voters was “too high” to ignore, he tells Der Tagesspiegel.
He sees the Free Democrats’ revival as evidence that the Christian Democrats have a “deficit in economic policy” and the performance of the Alternative as evidence that they have a “deficit in immigration policy”.
It is no coincidence that Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, plans to present his proposals for EU reform next week.
Macron seeks to transcend the left-right divide in French politics, overhaul the labor market, brings the United States back into the Paris climate agreement and brush up the rusty institutions of the EU.
He has a comfortable majority at home to accomplish his goals, but international support, whether from Donald Trump or European leaders, is far less certain.
With Britain leaving the EU, the European scenario in the months and years to come will likely be written by what the French newspaper l’Opinion has called “Macron I” and “Merkel IV”.
Merkel IV’s weaker-than-expected majority in parliament could prove a decisive factor, but time will tell. The German chancellor is certainly one of the most talented politicians of her generation.
Alternative won voters from the left and right
From the ZDF exit poll: 21 percent of the Alternative’s new voters, compared to 2013, came from the Christian Democrats. 10 percent came from the Social Democrats, 6 percent from Die Linke and 35 did not vote at all four years ago.
Three reasons to be happy with the result
- A “Jamaica” coalition may be the best outcome if the Free Democrats and Greens get the right portfolios to balance out each others’ excesses.
- The Social Democrats will have the time and opportunity to do some much-needed soul-searching as the biggest opposition party.
- While the Alternative finishing third is unfortunate, the party did get enough votes not to be able to call the election’s legitimacy into question nor keep a low profile and conceal its dilettantism in the Bundestag.
Germany is not an island
The strong result of the Alternative for Germany is an expression of the Zeitgeist and comparable to the performance of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in elections in France and the Netherlands, respectively — as well as Donald Trump’s victory in the United States.
On the other hand, more than 85 percent of Germans did vote against the Alternative.
Why didn’t the Greens win more?
“Many of the Greens’ core themes have been addressed, including emotional issues like nuclear power,” Volker Kronenberg, a professor of politics at the University of Bonn, tells the Financial Times. (Merkel phased out nuclear energy in 2011.)
Other issues, such as climate change and protection of the environment, are now widely accepted and supported also by other parties. The Greens have lost something of their originality.
Keep an eye on the Bavarians key
Henrik Enderlein, director of the Jacques Delors Institut Berlin, reminds us that “Jamaica” would not be a three- but a four-party coalition. The Christian Social Union (CSU), Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, is likely to affirm its own positions against the Free Democrats and Greens.
Florian Eder of Politico points out that the CSU got only 38.5 percent support, 12 points short of its ambition. “Brace for a tough year for Merkel.”
Earlier in the night, former CSU interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said the Free Democrats’ revival was evidence the Christian Democrats had a “deficit in economic policy” and the performance of the Alternative was evidence they had a “deficit in immigration policy”.
New political era
The incoming parliament is likely to see more debate. Merkel will find it harder to implement her program with a coalition partner other than the Social Democrats, who may gain clout as the strongest opposition party. The four others will have to work hard to make their voices heard.
These could be good preconditions for a higher political participation in general. Turnout was up in this election: from 71 percent four years ago to 75 percent.
Schulz turns on Merkel in post-election debate
Schulz is already acting like the leader of the opposition in the post-election debate, promising the Free Democrats and Greens that Merkel will “agree to anything” to form a coalition with them and calling her a “hoover” for “sucking up other people’s ideas”.
Greens will need significant concessions
Thomas Petersen, a pollster and analyst at the Allensbach Institute, tells the Financial Times that the Greens could only do a deal with the Christian Democrats if they can secure enough planks of their government program:
These include a commitment to end approvals for new cars with an internal combustion engine by 2030 and the immediate closure of twenty coal-fired power plants. Germany’s approach toward immigration and refugees is another potential stumbling bloc.
Why the Alternative is stronger in the East
It is no coincidence that many of the Alternative’s voters are found in the former East Germany, a region which, a quarter century after reunification, is still struggling to keep up with the West.
Easterners have long felt left behind. Unemployment is higher in the region. There is more resentment toward refugees, who have been arriving since 2015, and the benefits they have received. Perceived preferential treatment of refugees helps explain why the Alternative does well in poor regions that do not have a high refugee population.
East Germany was a relatively homogenous, isolated and insular state before 1991. It is therefore not difficult to understand why the appeal to harden Germany’s borders has translated into significant gains for a far-right party.
Americans largely uninterested in German election
In America, the German election is mostly being ignored.
Our media today are tightly focused on the ongoing controversy regarding President Donald Trump, NFL players, free speech and the national anthem.
The usual critiques of American attention spans and insularity apply here. But it can also be said that the parliamentary nature of Germany’s election makes it difficult for Americans to understand and relate to the process.
Moreover, the absence of a viable radical alternative to Merkel, akin to France’s Marine Le Pen, makes the stakes seem low. Most Americans don’t know or care whether the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats win.
Click here to read more.
Social Democrats should have picked side key
Germany’s Social Democrats are going the way of the Dutch Labor Party.
Both parties tried to appeal to their working- and middle-class constituents in elections this year and both lost precisely because of this indecision.
Campaigning on liberal immigration laws, social justice and international engagement alienates blue-collar voters.
Campaigning on border controls and deemphasizing identity politics turns away college graduates.
Do both at the same time and you end up with with no supporters at all.
Click here to read more.
What, if any, impact on Brexit?
Open Europe’s Leopold Traugott argues that a coalition with the Free Democrats could be good for Britain. The liberals have argued against punishing the United Kingdom for leaving the EU and would support a post-Brexit free-trade deal.
Christian Odendahl, a German economist, is skeptical, writing in Politico that the Free Democrats are unlikely to use their precious bargaining chips with the Christian Democrats on Brexit:
If the FDP takes a stance on Europe to set itself apart in coalition talks, it will do so on eurozone issues.
British hopes that German exporters might persuade Merkel to take a softer line are also misguided:
For German businesses, whose complex supply chains crisscross the entire EU, nothing is more important than the single market, with its common rules and institutions. If forced to choose, business will always choose to protect the single market over tariff-free access to the UK.
American media roundup
- Benjamin Hart writes in New York magazine that the biggest story of the election, other than Merkel’s reelection, was the Alternative.
- Fox News’ John Moody even calls it the “real” story of the election.
- Sarah Wildman argues in Vox that the party’s success breaks with Germany’s ability to keep the far right at bay.
- Walter Russell Mead argues in The Wall Street Journal that the danger for Merkel and the German political establishment is that eurozone reform and immigration will swell the populist backlash that feeds both the Alternative and Die Linke, the far left.
- The New York Times similarly reports that a broad pro-European consensus and a dull campaign have left room for the two parties on the fringes.
Not the first far-right party since World War II
Hart, Mead, Wilman and The New York Times all claim that the Alternative is “the first far-right party” to win seats in Germany’s national parliament since the end of World War II. This is incorrect.
The German Right Party, which was close to neo-Nazi, had seats in West Germany’s first postwar parliament.
The only slightly more moderate German Party was part of Konrad Adenauer’s first coalition government and didn’t lose its seats until 1961.
Germany hasn’t had a far-right party in parliament since then.
Only The Washington Post gets it right.
60 percent of Alternative voters told exit pollsters they did not support the party because of its program but rather as expression of protest against the ruling parties.
In the former East Germany (including East Berlin), the Alternative won 21 percent of all votes.
The next four years will tell if the established parties can succeed in winning back frustrated voters.
Merkel is quietly redefining German nationalism
Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky argues that behind Merkel’s seemingly vision-free politics lies a bold attempt to redefine German nationalism.
Her Germany is full of the joys of local life, he writes: regional festivals, small-town newspapers, garden plots. It’s a more pastoral, feminine version of patriotism that contrasts with the aggressive, masculine commitment to Vaterland of the far right.
In her quiet way, Merkel is winning an ideological battle, not just exploiting prosperity. It may not mean much for the outside world, but it’s important domestically. Bold vision would have gotten in the way this year. There will be time for it later.
German media roundup key
- Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel argues that Merkel’s reelection owes much to her reputation as an international crisis manager. 59 percent of voters believe she can lead Germany through uncertain times.
- In the same newspaper, Antje Sirleschtov cautions that coalition talks will be tough. The Greens know that the Christian Democrats need them more than the other way around. Merkel’s Bavarian allies will not allow their concerns about immigration to be sidelined anymore. Christian Lindner, the leader of the Free Democrats, will not repeat the mistake of his predecessor, Guido Westerwelle, and trade principles for power.
- Katharina Schuler reports for Hamburg’s Die Zeit that tensions in the conservative union are coming to a head. Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian party chief, has always had his doubts about an alliance with the Greens. “Concessions in Berlin could cost him votes in Munich.”
- The big story for Der Spiegel is the demise of the Social Democrats. The weekly’s Florian Gathmann reports that Schulz’ position is nevertheless secure — for now.
- Stefan Kuzmany argues in the same publication that the Social Democrats are wise to go into opposition and regroup as a “bulwark of democracy” against the Alternative, which he calls “an attack on our liberal democracy”.
- The cover of Monday’s Die Tageszeitung shows a lightning bolt striking the Bundestag. In its editorial, the left-wing newspaper writes that “people who look at the world through the lens of the insulted” have entered parliament: “the retrogrades, the racists — they are inside now. And how.” It predicts the Alternative “will spread fear and foment aggression. That’s what it lives on.”
- Ulf Poschardt blames Merkel for the Alternative’s success, writing in the conservative Die Welt newspaper that by integrating left-wing positions she has ceded the right to the nationalists. The only good news is the Free Democrats’ revival: “Christian Lindner has brought the party back from near-death to government in one fell swoop.”
A tale of two Germanies
Libération, the left-wing French newspaper, reports from a “divided Germany”. On the one hand, a country of trade surpluses, low unemployment and a generous refugee policy. On the other, a country in which nearly 16 percent of Germans live below the poverty line and pensioners must work “mini-jobs” to make ends meet.
This is why support for the Alternative and Die Linke has been rising, especially in the former East.
To this unfortunate East-West divide can be added other geographical divisions: between an impoverished northeast and a wealthy southwest, between cities and countryside … between struggling industrial districts and flourishing little “Silicon Valleys”.
Merkel isn’t wholly responsible for these fault lines. But, despite budget surpluses — “in other words, large margins to maneuver” — she has done little to reduce them.
That concludes our blog
Thank you for reading us today. I hope you enjoyed our coverage. We’ll have more analysis and opinion in the days and weeks to come.