- - Sunday, September 24, 2017

BERLIN — German voters delivered Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats a fourth consecutive term and the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party a spot in the parliament in Sunday’s federal election, which was widely seen as a referendum on Ms. Merkel’s performance over the past 12 years.

Ms. Merkel’s jubilance over her re-election will be short-lived, as she now must piece together a coalition of widely disparate parties that can propel her Eurocentric, economy-driven mandate — an almost herculean task, given that a far-right nationalist party is entering parliament for the first time since shortly after the end of World War II. The AfD will be Germany’s third-largest party, having won 12.7 percent of the vote, according to early returns with about 95 percent of the vote counted.

Major Jewish groups expressed alarm Sunday over AfD’s electoral success, while France’s far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, congratulated the German nationalist party.

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“Bravo to our allies from AfD for this historic score! It’s a new symbol of the awakening of the peoples of Europe,” Ms. Le Pen said on Twitter.

Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and its sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Democrats, dominated with 33.4 percent of the vote in early returns, almost 14 points ahead of Germany’s second-largest party, the center-left Social Democrats, with 20.5 percent. However, the Social Democrats were expected to drop to 20 percent, the party’s lowest results ever in a national election.

After the election, the Social Democrats — Ms. Merkel’s junior coalition partner for eight of the past 12 years — announced that it would not join the next government, forcing the chancellor to form a coalition or attempt a minority government, which hasn’t been done in Germany’s history.

Asked on German public television whether a minority government of just her own conservative Union bloc is conceivable, Ms. Merkel replied: “I think that stable German governments are a value in itself, that our whole parliamentary system is different from those in countries that have a long tradition of minority governments.

“I don’t see it. I have the intention of achieving a stable government in Germany,” she said.

Ms. Merkel “needs a coalition with a solid majority that can agree on an agenda,” said Josef Janning, director and senior policy fellow of the Berlin branch of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Most viable constellations would be difficult to pull together because “it brings together parties that are too far apart in their political agendas,” Mr. Janning said. “It will be quite difficult for Merkel to pull it together.”

Still, her victory came as no surprise in a nation with record low unemployment rates and a booming economy, said Thomas Petersen, a project manager and researcher with the political and market polling firm Allensbach Institute.

“The German population is quite fine with the status quo: Our economy is good and Germans live quite well,” Mr. Petersen said. “Germans are concerned with certain topics, but they’re fine at the end of the day. They’re afraid of change, and that shows why Merkel’s popularity has remained stable.”

Despite a vote of confidence in the chancellor’s stability, internal politics are anything but stable after the election results. The 4-year-old AfD has grown in prominence in reaction to Ms. Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open the nation’s borders to more than 1 million mainly Muslim refugees. The far-right party enters the Bundestag with an anti-Europe, anti-immigrant agenda directly opposed to Ms. Merkel’s policies.

And party members are on the warpath.

“We’re going chase down Frau Merkel and whoever else gets in our way until we get back our country,” Alexander Gauland, co-chairman of the AfD party, said after early returns in the party’s first federal elections.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported that hundreds of protesters descended on the club where AfD leaders were celebrating their third-place finish.

Shouting “All Berlin hates the AfD!” “Nazi pigs!” and other slogans, several protesters threw bottles as police kept them away from the building in Berlin. The protesters held a demonstration against the AfD in nearby Alexanderplatz earlier in the evening.

In addition, the president of the German Central Council of Jews said the AfD “tolerates far-right thoughts and agitates against minorities.”

Council President Josef Schuster said he expects Germany’s other parties will “reveal the true face of the AfD and unmask their empty, populist promises.”

Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, congratulated Ms. Merkel, calling her a “true friend of Israel and the Jewish people,” and denounced the AfD as “a disgraceful reactionary movement which recalls the worst of Germany’s past.”

Among the AfD remarks condemned by Jewish groups, co-leader Alexander Gauland recently said that no other country has faced up to past crimes the way Germany has and the Nazi years “today don’t affect our identity anymore,” the AP reported.

Challenges for ‘Mutti’

Nonetheless, analysts said the AfD won’t be able to affect policy much — no other party will work with it. But it will force Ms. Merkel to look more inward and possibly compromise. The tone of the national conversation will change, they said.

“Many will feel encouraged by their presence, and now the sort of speech that AfD practices on migration, society, multiculturalism and popular sovereignty will become part of a wider public discourse,” said Mr. Janning. “That’s a significant change.”

Three other smaller parties won seats in parliament and could help form a coalition government: The pro-business Free Democrats captured 10.9 percent of the vote, the environmentalist Green Party took 8.9 percent and the The Left socialist  party received 7.8 percent.

Ms. Merkel will have to arrange a piecemeal coalition with at least two of these smaller parties, an unprecedented situation, especially if that coalition involves the leftist Greens, as is expected.

Meanwhile, the difficult process of balancing Germany’s new power dynamics will be exacerbated by a range of divisions within Europe and beyond that will challenge Ms. Merkel’s pragmatic nature, Mr. Janning said.

“Migration is continuing, conflicts on the EU’s borders are continuing, and there’s a much more power-centric international order,” he said. “All of that will require more German contribution and risk-taking.”

Still, the longtime chancellor is known for her cool, pragmatic approach to foreign policy, even after the Western democratic order was challenged last year by the successful Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election of Donald Trump in the United States.

“There are a lot of challenges in foreign politics right now, like Brexit and an unpredictable American president,” said Mr. Petersen. “If the West stands together, it needs a strong, experienced chancellor to navigate these murky waters. If not, then we might find ourselves in trouble.”

During her 12-year tenure, Ms. Merkel fielded criticism over policy decisions such as bailing out Greece during the eurozone economic crisis and instituting an open-door policy toward refugees. But her controlled response to both situations are evidence to voters of the predictable manner in which the chancellor will handle potentially calamitous situations.

Voters agree, seeing Ms. Merkel — affectionately referred to as “Mutti” (“mother” in German) — as a capable figure able to steer Germany through troubled geopolitical times, all the while building on Germany’s economic dominance.

“I may not agree with all of her policies, but overall I think she’s done a good job,” said Ben Abel, 26, a student from Bonn who was visiting friends in Berlin. “I particularly like the way that she presents herself in a respectable and calm manner and works toward keeping a peaceful atmosphere within the EU. She doesn’t allow dramatic situations to escalate.”

Ms. Merkel will have to dive head first into a slurry of challenges that could jeopardize her legacy. With foreign policy, it’s likely she’ll remain strong on the European Union and continue to stand up to the United States and Turkey, while sometimes working with Russia — on the North Korea issue, for example.

At home, she will face a right-wing, nationalist zeitgeist that is captivating the public, while an aging society worries about the stability of the nation’s beloved social programs and the future of Germany’s industrial dominance.

The “Iron Chancellor” will hold her own, analysts say.

“Her pragmatism, process-oriented and problem-solving approach is correct for this political moment,” Mr. Janning said. “She doesn’t come to the table with big, lofty speeches. That’s not her. She wants to successfully achieve, promote and protect German interests and keep the EU together. That’s her agenda.”

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