German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared victory Sunday as her conservative party clung to its place as the country's largest political force, but the stunning rise of a far-right, anti-immigrant party cast a pall over her reelection to a fourth term.
Signaling a turbulent era ahead for Europe's largest economy, hundreds of protesters shouting "Out with the Nazis" spontaneously gathered in the rain outside the Alternative for Germany party celebrations in central Berlin after the nationalist party won a remarkable 12.3% of the vote by campaigning against refugees, foreigners and Islam.
Breaking taboos and using language not heard in Germany since the Nazi era, the populist opposition party vowed to make life difficult for Merkel.
"We're going to take back our country.… We're going to be hunting Merkel wherever she goes," said one of the party's leaders, Alexander Gauland, who recently stirred controversy by saying Germans should take pride in what their soldiers achieved in World War I and World War II.
Alternative for Germany was founded in 2013 as an anti-euro currency party but turned sharply to the right. Much like the Republican Party under President Trump, it won support from voters struggling to make ends meet in one of Europe's richest countries and frustrated with mainstream parties that, they felt, ignored their concerns. It campaigned on demands that Germany close its borders to foreigners immediately, raise the number of deportations of asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected, and deny refugees from bringing their families to Germany.
Merkel seemed chastened but relieved to be able to hold power for another four-year term a year after political shocks surprised elsewhere — such as Britain's decision to leave the European Union and Trump's election. She has become Europe's most important leader and a regular critic of some of Trump's policies on international issues such as climate change.
"There's no point beating around the bush," Merkel said in a speech at her election headquarters in Berlin. "We were hoping for a better result, obviously, but I'm happy we achieved our goals. We're the strongest party, and we got a mandate to form the next government. And that's what we're going to do."
In power since 2005, Merkel was initially hesitant to run for a fourth term but ultimately decided she had a duty to help resolve the country's migrant crisis, according to allies and journalists who have spoken to her in off-the-record briefings.
This was the first general election since she opened the borders in 2015 to more than 1 million refugees from Syria and other trouble spots, and anger over the 63-year-old leader's decision boiled over and sent Alternative for Germany soaring over the 5% hurdle needed to win seats in Parliament and into a highly visible position as the third-largest party in the six-party Parliament.
With nearly 90% of voting districts reporting, Merkel's Christian Democrats led with 33.9%, down sharply from 41.5% in the last election in 2013. Her junior coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats, came in second at 20.8%.
"The results are very depressing," said Volker Kauder, Merkel's whip in Parliament. "We'll have to analyze what went wrong."
The Social Democrats immediately ruled out a resumption of the "grand coalition" that was in power for the last four years under Merkel's leadership. That would force Merkel to try to form an awkward three-way coalition with two smaller parties. Merkel and leaders of the four other parties have all ruled out any coalition with Alternative for Germany, which will have 88 members in the 631-seat Bundestag.
The pro-business Free Democrats were Merkel's junior allies from 2005 to 2009 and won 10.9% on Sunday. That center-right coalition would need help from a third party, the pro-ecology Greens, who won 8.9%, for what Germans call a "Jamaica coalition" because the banner colors of those three parties — black, yellow and green — are those of Jamaica's national flag.
Under Germany's complicated proportional representation election system and protracted coalition talks after the vote, it could take many weeks or even months for Merkel to form a government with the two new junior partners — both itching to return to power but archenemies for decades. The ruling grand coalition will stay in power in a caretaker role until that happens.
The rise of Alternative for Germany mirrors gains by populist parties across Europe. In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen won 34% of the vote in May and right-winger Geert Wilders won 13% in the Netherlands in March.
The German nationalist party, known by the initials AfD, won more than 6 million votes and was believed to have siphoned away more than a million ballots from Merkel's conservatives. It also attracted about 1.5 million Germans who did not vote four years ago. Voter turnout was high, at over 75%.
"This is a watershed moment in Germany and the end of an era for the two major parties," said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University, after the two leading parties that have dominated Germany since World War II — the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — were reduced to only about half of the electorate.
"I see Merkel coming under increasing pressure within her own party because a lot of people in the conservative party are going to lose their jobs," Jaeger said.
The emergence of a powerful far-right party in Germany is an ominous development for millions of Germans who have spent generations coming to terms with their country's Nazi past, as well as for millions of others across Europe who harbor fears of a resurgent far-right.
"There's no place in Germany for a party like the AfD — that goes without saying," said Andreas Tebharth, a 55-year-old construction engineer who had just voted on Sunday, a rainy day in Berlin.
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.
4:30 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with new vote results, quotes, analysis and background.