The CDU plurality was attained more easily than seemed likely earlier in 2017. Socialist Martin Schultz seemed a dynamic opponent, but he failed to gain traction in debates and ended with a record low showing for his party. With little difference between the two main candidates, centrist-voting Germans chose the known quantity: “Mutti”—Mommy—as Germans affectionately call Merkel. The big winner, though, was the anti-immigrant AfD party, which surged in the last weeks of the campaign to gain 13 percent of the vote, translating to 94 seats, the third-largest party in the 709-member parliament.
This will be the first time since World War II a far-right party holds seats in the Bundestag. Analysts had predicted Germany—mostly satisfied with a strong economy and low unemployment—would reject a populist upheaval of the Brexit-Trump variety. They were mostly right, but Germany’s election echoes France’s earlier this year: A centrist candidate won leadership, but extreme-right groups expanded their representation and legitimacy in government. On election night Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung called the vote “a historical setback for German society” and predicted that AfD’s rise “means that the notion of civility in politics has been defeated.”
A somber Merkel called her party’s losses “disappointing” and pledged to win back AfD voters. Having vowed not to work with the party because of its racist rhetoric, and with Socialists refusing to continue partnership, Merkel’s next challenge is forming a coalition with the parties that remain—the pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens. In early October Merkel accepted limits on future migration in order to keep the Christian Social Union, a mainstream conservative party in Bavaria, in her coalition. The way ahead will be complicated, for both Merkel and Germany, and there are already whispers in the CDU of replacing her.
Still, Merkel has faced threats before and survived. During the final campaign week, the CDU released an ad of Merkel as a smiling 3-year-old with the caption: “For a Germany where anybody can become anything.” Growing up in East Germany, Merkel’s most likely path was to become an accomplice of the Stasi, the secret police. Her pastor-father cooperated with Communist authorities: That shielded his children from discrimination and allowed higher education—and Merkel chose to study science because there it was “more difficult to bend the truth.” While working toward her doctorate in physics, the Stasi secret police tried to recruit Merkel. She turned the job down with a pre-rehearsed excuse that she was a blabbermouth.
‘The only thing the East German system taught us was that we should never do it that way again.’ —Merkel
“The only thing the East German system taught us,” Merkel has said, “was that we should never do it that way again.” On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and while most East Germans spent all night partying, diligent Merkel went home early so she wouldn’t be late to work the next day. A month later, Merkel joined the new East German democracy movement, and that work led to a seat in parliament after unification.
Chancellor since 2005, Angela Merkel has been a strong proponent of the European Union. Building the EU has been one of post-war Germany’s greatest challenges. Originally designed to bring France and Germany into such close economic interdependence that another war would be impossible, the EU’s expansion to 28 members stretched its original mandate. As its scope has grown to meet new members’ needs, citizens of wealthier nations like Germany feel resentment at having to pull more than their own weight. Germany is the economic powerhouse behind the euro common currency and as such led in bailing out member nation Greece in the debt crisis of 2011. “We have no alternative,” Merkel said then.