Chancellor Angela Merkel has won a fourth term in office, but the real winner of the German election on September 24 was the Alternative for Germany, an upstart party that harnessed widespread anger over Merkel's decision to allow into the country more than a million mostly Muslim migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Preliminary election results show that Merkel's center-right CDU/CSU alliance won around 33% of the vote, its worst electoral result in nearly 70 years. Merkel's main challenger, Martin Schulz and his center-left SPD, won 20.5%, the party's worst-ever showing.
The nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) won around 13% to become the country's third-largest party, followed by the classical liberal Free Democrats (FDP) with 10.7%, the far-left Linke party with 9.2% and the environmentalist Greens with 8.9%.
"With only 33%, Merkel has not only achieved the worst result of all the campaigns she has led, but also the second-worst in the party's history," wrote Die Zeit.
Merkel now has two main options for building a governing coalition: a so-called grand coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD, or a three-way coalition comprising the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens. Building a stable coalition will be difficult, given that all the parties have differing ideologies, platforms and priorities.
Merkel has governed twice in a grand coalition with the SPD and once in coalition with the FDP. Schulz has insisted that the SDP will not agree to another grand coalition because it would leave the AfD as Germany's main opposition party, which would give it special rights and privileges in parliament.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper predicted that any coalition would collapse before the end of the four-year legislative period because Merkel will need to bring together several parties that could not be more different:
"The CDU/CSU and the Greens are worlds apart. Many positions of the libertarian FDP collide head-on with the socialized ideas of the CDU/CSU.... The chances that such an alliance will last until the end of the legislature is estimated to be far below 50%. There is an obvious point of view: the CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens will start as a temporary coalition whose protagonists become exhausted and give up after about two years.... Surely by then the Chancellor will have concluded for herself that enough is enough. The result would be new elections and the end of the Merkel era and a new government — led by its successor."
Deutsche Welle concurred:
"Although these results mean the CDU will remain Germany's largest party, it still represents a substantial loss for the conservatives, who managed 41.5% in 2013. With a three-way coalition looking to be the likely solution to avoid a minority government, Merkel is about to begin a far less stable administration than in her past three terms."
The Financial Times added:
"Ms. Merkel is clearly weakened. The chancellor has over the past year been portrayed as the West's last standard-bearer of liberal values in a world upended by populists such as Mr. Trump. Sunday's election result has revealed just how much her domestic support has dwindled, and how divisive her policies have been."
The election results show that more than a million traditional CDU/CSU voters defected to the AfD in this vote. Detlef Seif, a Christian Democrat MP, said disaffected voters had abandoned the CDU because Merkel had moved the party too far to the left, especially on immigration policy and gay marriage. "We must become more focused on our core conservative values," he said.
CSU leader Horst Seehofer concurred: "There is an open flank on our right and we have to close this flank with a clear position and clear limits."
In Berlin, Tagesspiegel wrote:
"Angela Merkel has ruled this country for twelve years. She has imposed a debt burden of billions on the Germans to protect the southern part of Europe from collapsing and to implement her idea of a European community. She has shaken the German energy industry to save the world's climate. And she has opened the gates of the country to hundreds of thousands of refugees because she considered it a humanitarian obligation. She also changed the traditional notion of marriage, as marriage of husband and wife, just like that....
"The world is celebrating the chancellor for all of this: she has been called the climate chancellor, Europe's savior, world stabilizer, in short: the most powerful woman in the globe. At home, however, Merkel is facing a shambles after three periods of government.
"What follows now is the beginning of a farewell, even if no one can tell today how long it will last."
In a sobering analysis of the economic and social problems facing Germany, Die Zeit wrote:
"No, not all is well in Germany. Rents are rising, social divisions are becoming more acute, roads and schools are often in bad, pathetic condition. With its slogan 'For a Germany in which we live well and gladly,' the CDU/CSU won the election, but many voters lost. The SPD was even punished with its worst result in the history of the Federal Republic. The enormous losses for the grand coalition show: Too many problems were ignored in the election campaign; there were hardly any concrete answers to the pressing questions of our time. This is no longer acceptable. Many voters want a government that transforms their country — not merely manages it."
Merkel has remained defiant. During a post-election press conference, she said: "I do not see what we should be doing differently." She also insisted that there will be no change in migration policy and no annual upper limit on asylum-seekers.
The AfD has countered that the status quo is unacceptable: "Dear friends, now that we're obviously the third-biggest party, the government has to buckle up," said Alexander Gauland, a former CDU official who is now co-chairman of the AfD. "We will hunt them. We will hunt Frau Merkel and we will reclaim our country and our people."
Writing for Die Zeit, commenter Ludwig Greven argued that Merkel should resign to save Germany's mainstream parties from political extinction:
"With Sunday's election result, Germany has followed in the footsteps of other European countries. In France, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Spain and the Scandinavian countries, conservatives and Christian Democrats as well as socialists and Social Democrats have been badly decimated, if not completely disappeared, from the political scene. Especially in the neighboring Austria, where Christian Democrats and Social Democrats have ruled much longer than in Germany, the two great parties now hardly reach a parliamentary majority....
"If you push this thought game to its logical conclusion, the only remaining and probably also most useful solution is that Merkel abandons her claim to the chancellor's office. It should be her last term anyway. If she resigned, she would deprive the AfD of its decisive role as a protest party against her refugee policy and against her as an eternal chancellor."
Germany's leading business and financial newspaper, Handelsblatt, concluded:
"The reality is that as of today, September 24, Ms. Merkel is in effect a lame duck. She herself once said that she doesn't want to be carried out of office 'a half-dead wreck.' And yet she has so far eliminated or sidelined any potential successor in her party. In her fourth term, she will no longer have that luxury. Part of leadership is planning for succession, and grooming a new generation of leaders. At present the ranks of hopefuls within her party, and across the political spectrum, look woefully unconvincing."