Merkel Seeks Fourth Term as Germans Vote in Federal Election

Updated on
  • Coalition options will be clearer after Sunday’s election
  • Populist AfD set to enter Bundestag, may take third place

Germans headed to the polls in a federal election that will determine whether Angela Merkel scores a record-equaling fourth victory, with the big question being which other party or parties will join the chancellor’s Christian Democrats in her new government.

Merkel’s bloc, which includes her Bavarian allies in the Christian Social Union, had the support of about 36 percent of voters in the final opinion polls during the campaign. That’s about 14 percentage points ahead of its main challenger and current coalition partner, Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats. Four other parties -- the pro-business Free Democrats, the Greens, the anti-capitalist Left and, for the first time ever, the populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, are poised to win seats in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.

Angela Merkel votes on Sept. 24.

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Read how Germany’s complex electoral process works

Amid overcast skies and rain in much of Germany, turnout was little changed from the previous election in 2013, reaching 41.1 percent at 2 p.m. Berlin time, four hours before the close of voting.

Victory would crown a remarkable comeback for Merkel from a plunge in her popularity amid the 2015-16 refugee crisis that saw 1.3 million migrants flood into Germany. Early this year, she was equal in the polls with Schulz, a fresh face in German domestic politics, but the Social Democrat’s challenge has faded in recent months and his party threatens to post its worst result since World War II. Merkel, 63 and chancellor for 12 years, has portrayed herself during the campaign as a beacon of stability in a world buffeted by crises.

“Despite everyone saying this election is boring, it’s actually crucial from a geo-strategic point of view,” Judy Dempsie, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. The result will determine what kind of a partner the U.S. has in Europe on issues such as North Korea, she said. “Whoever wins the election on Sunday will have to become far more involved in these major geo-strategic issues that are outside Europe.”

The outcome is also being closely watched in Paris, where President Emmanuel Macron is proposing measures to deepen integration in the euro area that depend on the support of Germany, Europe’s biggest economy as well as its dominant country under Merkel.

A voter casts her ballot in Berlin on Sept. 24.

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Exit Polls

Once voting ends, television exit polls -- historically generally accurate -- will reveal if the chancellor has managed to outperform expectations as she did in the previous election in 2013. If the CDU/CSU and the FDP can get to a combined 48.5 percent or so -- a level they’ve not managed in polling since late August -- that would allow Merkel to reprise the business-friendly coalition she led from 2009 to 2013. 

If not, she will have two alternatives: The first is to try to add the environmentalist Greens to that coalition with the FDP, but it’s a combination previously untested at national level. The easier option might be to continue the “grand coalition” with the SPD, though that would face resistance among grassroots Social Democrats who would prefer to go into opposition. While agreement on a CDU-FDP coalition might take just a few weeks, other options could see talks dragging on for months.

The joker in the pack is the AfD, set to become the first far-right party to enter the German parliament since the immediate aftermath of the war. Polling in the final stretch has shown it gaining as much as 12 percent support, possibly enough for third place, as voters have drifted away from the traditional mainstream parties to the extremes of both right and left. The AfD has been targeting former industrial cities in western Germany that have fallen on hard times as well as the chancellor’s own district in the east. Investors are likely to be concerned if the AfD were to poll in the region of about 15 percent.

‘Uneasy Times’

Both main candidates used their final pitch to voters to denounce the political extremes.

“Everybody feels that we’re living in uneasy times, in a time of great challenges,” Merkel told a crowd of several thousand in Munich late Friday. “That’s why I think we need a policy that has always made Germany successful -- one of measure in the center.”

Schulz placed the AfD alongside France’s Front National, Italy’s Northern League and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party.

“You are our enemies,” he told a rally in central Berlin, referencing his party’s history of opposing the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. “Social Democracy has always been the bulwark of democracy, and we’re going to stand in your way.”

Populists Pushed Back

The German vote is the culmination of a 2017 electoral calendar in Europe that saw strong support for anti-immigration, European Union-skeptic populists in the Netherlands and France, only for them to be defeated as the center held. In Britain, Theresa May’s campaign on a platform of an abrupt break from the EU led to the loss of her majority but saw the collapse of the U.K. Independence Party.

Read why Merkel’s re-election matters internationally

A fourth election victory for Merkel, western Europe’s most powerful political leader, would equal those for her CDU predecessors Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor, and Helmut Kohl, who oversaw German reunification in 1990. She’s said she plans to serve a full four-year term, which would equal Kohl’s record 16 years in office.

The broadcasters will update their forecasts for the results through the evening, with the official result due in the early hours of Monday.

— With assistance by Tony Czuczka

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