Chancellor Angela Merkel won a decisive second term Sunday in elections that are likely to shunt Germany’s government to the right.
Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union took 33.8% of the vote in a contest that was almost unanimously criticized by commentators as dull and uninspiring.
As an added plus for Merkel, the small libertarian Free Democrats came in third with 14.6%, official results showed. That will allow her to rule in coalition with the pro-business party and pursue an agenda of lower taxes and labor reform.
Together, the two parties won 332 seats in the lower house of Parliament, compared with other parties’ combined 290.
The vote ends the awkward government of the last four years, which yoked the Christian Democrats, or CDU, with their archrivals, the left-of-center Social Democrats, in a “grand coalition.”
For the Social Democrats, Sunday was a humiliating defeat that saw the party plunge to its worst performance since World War II: 23%. The rout will almost certainly propel them out of coalition government for the first time in 11 years.
It was a “bitter day,” the Social Democrats’ leader, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, acknowledged to supporters after the polls closed and the results began streaming in. But he promised that the party would remain a political force pressing for fairer distribution of wealth and protection of workers.
“I promise you that we will be an opposition that will look very closely at what happens, how this new team will react,” said Steinmeier, who has been Germany’s foreign minister in the coalition government. “It has to prove that it knows what it’s doing.”
As a candidate, Steinmeier was seen as a bland bureaucrat unable to fire the public imagination. By contrast, although Merkel was lambasted by political watchers for running a soporific campaign almost devoid of substantive debate, she held on to her high personal-approval ratings to win reelection as Germany’s first female leader.
“We have achieved something great,” she told cheering party members in a victory speech Sunday evening. “We have managed to achieve our election aim of a stable majority in Germany for a new government.”
She said she would initiate talks with the Free Democrats about forming a center-right coalition. Such a pairing would enable Merkel, 55, to tackle the contentious issue of labor-market reform in Germany, where companies complain about stringent worker protections that they say drag down business and competitiveness.
With the Free Democrats in her corner, Merkel also is likely to try to halt the planned phase-out of nuclear power, another highly emotional issue in Germany, where the Green Party and many ordinary people oppose such plants.
And crucially for the U.S., a new center-right coalition will probably be steelier in its continued commitment of troops to the war in Afghanistan, a deeply unpopular undertaking in Germany.
President Obama called Merkel to congratulate her and said he “looks forward to continued close cooperation,” the Associated Press reported.
Following usual practice, the Free Democrats’ leader, Guido Westerwelle, as the junior coalition partner, will probably be named foreign minister. He would be the first openly gay person to hold the post.
“We are happy with this extraordinary result, but we know above all that this means we have responsibility now,” Westerwelle said to his cheering supporters. “We are ready to carry this responsibility. We want to co-govern Germany because we have to make sure that there is a tax system that is fairer.”
Though widely predicted by the opinion polls, Merkel’s reelection was not an unmitigated victory. Critics will ask why, despite her immense popularity, she was unable to lead the CDU to a larger share of the vote than in 2005, when the party drew 35%.
Political commentators ascribed some of that to the lackluster campaign, which offered just one debate between Merkel and Steinmeier. Most pundits judged that Steinmeier won that faceoff.
But the Christian Democrats’ inability to improve on their last outing at the polls, and the Social Democrats’ steep dive, also reflects the steady splintering of Germany’s political scene. The two big parties used to count on 80% of the vote between them, but in recent years, smaller groups such as the Greens, the Free Democrats and the Left Party have grown in influence.
Sunday’s election also was beset by increasing voter apathy and disillusionment, especially among residents in the east, in areas bypassed by the rising prosperity of the last few years.
Though high by American standards, at more than 70%, voter turnout was the lowest in Germany in more than 60 years, according to polling agency Gallup Europe.