Merkel's Lackluster Win Is Good for Germany

The election result may weaken the chancellor, but it strengthens the German democracy.

Happy, but not thrilled.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The sour faces of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's allies after the first exit poll results for the federal election were announced on Sunday night will prompt much talk of a Pyrrhic victory for Merkel. But the outcome of Sunday's election could be good both for her and for German democracy: It has clarified the options for the next governing coalition, and it has made sure there will be vocal opposition to the government from both the left and the right.

The exit polls -- which are usually very close to the final result -- show that Merkel, with about 33 percent of the vote for her Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, has a clear mandate to form the next government. That this could be the pair's second-worst result since 1949 sounds overly dramatic: It won in 2005 and 2009 with similar levels of support, and Merkel is used to it. As she pointed out in her first remarks after the poll results were announced, no party has a chance to put an alternative coalition together. This is Germany, so there will be lots of self-flagellation, but Merkel has rarely won clear victories; she has always performed best in situations that required give and take. This is one.

The CDU's current coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is really the biggest loser of the election, with about 21 percent -- its worst-ever result. Since no one within the party ranks is willing to take responsibility for the crash -- certainly not its failed candidate for the chancellorship, Martin Schulz, who didn't resign as party leader -- it's convenient to blame the current grand coalition for damaging the party's credibility. So SPD leaders on Sunday were ruling out another alliance with the CDU in the strongest possible terms. 

The CDU will still try to talk with the SPD: Merkel's Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier said so on Sunday, citing the second party's "responsibility to the country." But perhaps he's more interested in showing that the biggest opposition force doesn't accept any responsibility than in reforging the current coalition. Knocking on this closed door is less promising than talking to the two parties that are open to such talks -- the liberal Free Democratic Party, and the Greens. The leaders of both these parties have stressed that they'd only enter a Merkel-led coalition if they can have real influence, and they are not well-aligned with each other, but Merkel can work with both by offering each a role in specific areas.

The FDP aims at the finance portfolio, now held by CDU patriarch Wolfgang Schaeuble. He may have to go so Merkel can accommodate young, ambitious FDP leader Christian Lindner. It will be up to Merkel to find him a suitable job, perhaps on a European level -- but with the FDP in charge of his ministry, little will change politically. Lindner sounds like more of a hawk than Schaeuble on Greece and sharing German cash to help other euro zone nations, but subtract the heat of an election campaign, and there won't be much of a difference. Perhaps the FDP will push for more aggressive tax cuts than Schaeuble would have liked, but that isn't an ideological barrier for Merkel.

The Greens are bent on a faster switch to sustainable energy, including the quick phasing out of brown coal. They are also strongly pro-European. Merkel, who has long been attacked from the right for her strong environmental awareness, would be relieved to shift some of the responsibility to a coalition partner. She could also do with some European federalists at the foreign ministry -- she can always moderate their zeal because she has the final word on how Germany votes in the European Council. 

The talks won't be easy, but they won't be much harder than the 90-day ones with the SPD in 2013, which resulted, among other things, in the introduction of a national minimum wage -- a measure Merkel had opposed. The three parties even have recent successful experience of coalition talks, in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, where they've been governing since this year.

In a way, a deal with the FDP and the Greens better suits Merkel's convictions and style than an old-fashioned CDU/CSU victory of the kind the bloc enjoyed in the 1980s, under Helmut Kohl. 

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party appears to have gained as much in this election as the CDU/CSU block has lost -- about 8.5 percentage points, compared with 2013 results. That's telling: Though the party itself will be represented in the German parliament for the first time, anti-immigrant, nationalist, isolationist hardliners who make up its nucleus were there all the time. Merkel has lost that hardline wing of her party. On Sunday, she promised to try to "get AfD voters back," and she will be pushed by the remaining right-wingers in the party ranks -- and by the CSU, whose leader Horst Seehofer spoke of "closing the right flank" of the bloc. Merkel will probably make some moves to appease these allies, but she's not really a right-winger herself. It makes more sense for the hard right to be in opposition to her than on her bandwagon.

The current parliament presents a more coherent picture of the political and ideological divisions in German society than did the post-2013 parliament. A plurality of Germans believe in Merkel's mild version of patriotism and her commitment to stability. The Greens and the FDP represent natural extensions of this vision and the two necessary directions of gradual change -- some economic modernization, an environmental focus, bolder European integration.

And then there's the principled opposition. On the left is Die Linke, the successor party to the East German Communists that has just achieved its second-best ever election result -- and, potentially, the angry Social Democrats who must redefine themselves as a strong socialist alternative. On the right is the AfD, feisty and free to challenge the government in a way the right-wingers within CDU/CSU have never been, free even to question modern Germany's foundations of guilt and shame over its Nazi past -- but, with about 13 percent of the vote, not strong enough to be a major danger to the established order. Geert Wilders's Freedom Party won as much in the Dutch election earlier this year, and that was considered a loss.

This is an interesting, dynamic lineup born of a boring election campaign. It allows Germany to move forward and confront its old demons, which are now all in the open. Merkel doesn't get to rest on her laurels. Instead, she gets a chance to prove herself against more clearly defined challenges than she has ever faced.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Leonid Bershidsky at

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