The German nation grudgingly handed Angela Merkel a fourth term as chancellor in Sunday’s election but punished her for the refugee influx with a dramatic protest vote that ushered far-right nationalists into parliament for the first time in more than half a century.
Her conservatives remained the largest party with 32.9 percent according to projections based on initial results, but that was down more than eight points from 2013 in the party’s worst result since the post-war republic was founded in 1949.
But in a bombshell for the German establishment, the anti-Islam, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) has emerged as the country's third biggest political force.
Support for the far-right (AfD), which waged a fiercely anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim campaign, almost trebled to 13.3 percent, reflecting lingering fury among millions of Germans over her decision to allow in over one million refugees fleeing Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa since 2015.
“We had expected a better result of course but we mustn’t forget that we’ve had an exceptionally challenging parliamentary term,” Ms. Merkel, 63,who was frequently heckled and even pelted with tomatoes at campaign rallies, told supporters in Berlin. “We face a big new challenge with the entry of the AfD into parliament, we want to regain the AfD’s voters by solving their problems, by listening to their concerns and fears and above all through good government.”
But the chancellor, in power since 2005 and dubbed the nation’s “Mutti” or “Mummy” by her supporters, will find governing much harder during what is expected to be her final term.
She is weaker now because her only option to form a government appears to be a potentially unstable three-way coalition with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats who are likely to wrest policy concessions in exchange for their support.
After a dismal performance, the centre-left Social Democrats, with whom she has governed in a "grand coallition" for the last four years, have already ruled out joining another coalition.
"The AFD's gains don't surprise me that much after Brexit and the US election,” Mohammed Ossman, 27, a refugee from Damascus now living in Berlin, told The National. “This is a backlash, a fury that people are having. It’s a reaction to a lot of Germans feeling that their identity is under threat from the refugee influx. This is an especially big issue in Germany because they have had an identity problem since the end of the Second World War. They have been unable to be proud of their identity for so long and are now searching for a new one just as the refugees have come.The question now is, will she treat refugees as an opportunity or will she treat them as a crisis?”
After the upheaval caused by the refugee crisis, which has cost the country billions of euros, stoked terrorism fears and overwhelmed some authorities that were forced to hurriedly commandeer sports halls to house refugees, Ms. Merkel’s re-election may come as a surprise to outsiders.
But the majority of Germans still see her as a safe pair of hands who has presided over a halving of the unemployment rate and strong economic growth while much of the rest of Europe has been mired in crisis for almost a decade.
“She’is trusted more than any of her rivals at a time when the overriding public sentiment is fear of the future in the uncertain world environment,” Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst at Berlin’s Free University, told The National. “Her motives may not always have been clear, but people have faith in her as a crisis manager focused on protecting the interests of the majority.”
But the rise of the AfD, which has become the third-strongest party in parliament, marks a stain on Germany’s image. Its members include politicians who have been likened to Nazis and whose comments have been racist and revisionist.
The AfD resorted to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the campaign, using provocative posters such as one showing three white women in bikinis under the slogan “Burkas? We prefer bikinis.”
It has won support with calls for Germany to shut its borders, boost deportations and stop refugees bringing their families to join them, and caused outrage when leading AfD candidate Alexander Gauland said, “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in the two world wars.”
The rise of the AfD alarmed the country’s political establishment. Foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said saddened him that after the election there would again be "real Nazis standing at the lectern of the Reichstag [the parliament chamber]."
It will be the first time since 1953 that members of a far-right party have taken seats in parliament. Back then, the Socialist Reich Party, which consisted of Nazis and SS officers, had two members of parliament.
The oldest MP in the new Bundestag (federal parliament) is likely to be 77-year-old AfD man Wilhelm von Gottberg, who once called the Holocaust an “effective instrument to criminalise the Germans and their history.”
In the past, the oldest MP has traditionally opened the new session of parliament. But lawmakers were so worried that the honour may go to Mr. von Gottberg that they voted in June to change the rules. Now the longest-serving MP opens parliament. That will be finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, 75, who has been an MP since 1972.
One poll on Sunday showed that 60 percent of people who voted AfD had done so in protest at other parties rather than out of support for the AfD, and that more than a million had switched allegiance from Ms. Merkel’s party. Analysts said support for the AfD was driven by fears among many Germans, particularly in the former communist east, about the impact of immigration on society.
“They’re concerned about the fundamental question of what society and the country should look like in future,” said Holger Lengfeld, a sociology professor at the University of Leipzig. “We’re dealing with an evidently sizeable minority of the population that deeply rejects the cultural changes seen in recent years.”
Mr. Ossman, who survived the dangers of the Syrian war, the Libyan conflict and a perilous Mediterranean crossing with hundreds of other people packed in a fishing boat, said the AfD and its rhetoric don’t scare him.
“I know the AfD won't grow so powerful that they become really threatening," he said. "Germany is the next country in the populism wave. But it's not as bad as we’ve seen in other countries.”
ut in a bombshell for the German establishment, the anti-Islam, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) captured around 13 per cent, making it the country's third biggest political force.