With polls closing shortly, Germany voted on Sunday in the country's federal elections, with long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel looks certain to win a historic fourth term in office (see full preview here). Absent last minute drama, the poll is also expected to see the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) entering parliament for the first time. The only outstanding question today is which other party or parties will join the chancellor’s Christian Democrats coalition in her new government
Polls opened at 8am (06:00 GMT) and first projections are expected when the polls close at 6pm.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged people to go vote. "Voting is a civic duty. Go and vote!" Steinmeier wrote in an opinion piece published in the Bild am Sonntag Sunday newspaper. "Every vote counts - your vote counts," Steinmeier doubled down, hoping to avoid the recent plunge in voter participation observed in France. "People who don't vote allow others to decide the future of our country."
Some 61.5 million people are eligible to vote, and turnout was expected to be higher than the 71.5% of voters who turned up at the polls at the last election four years ago, however amid overcast skies and rain in much of Germany, turnout was little changed from the previous election in 2013, reaching 41.1% at 2 p.m. Berlin time, four hours before the close of voting.
Regardless of participation, the winner is certain: opinion polls suggest Merkel and her party are heading for a clear win, which would gift Merkel a historic fourth term. Merkel’s bloc, which includes her Bavarian allies in the Christian Social Union, had the support of just about 37 percent of voters in the final opinion polls during the campaign.
That’s about 15 percentage points ahead of its main challenger and current coalition partner, Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats. According to Bloomberg, four other parties -- the pro-business Free Democrats, the Greens, the anti-capitalist Left and, for the first time ever, the populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, are poised to win seats in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag
A fourth victory for the Chancellor would crown a remarkable comeback for Merkel from a plunge in her popularity amid the 2015-16 refugee crisis that saw 1.3 million migrants flood into Germany. Early this year, she was equal in the polls with Schulz, a fresh face in German domestic politics, but the Social Democrat’s challenge has faded in recent months and his party threatens to post its worst result since World War II. Merkel, 63 and chancellor for 12 years, has portrayed herself during the campaign as a beacon of stability in a world buffeted by crises.
"There is no other European politician who could remotely match her in terms of her longevity, her credibility among her own people," said Al Jazeera's Laurence Lee, reporting from Berlin. "It is impossible to imagine a conservative politician or even one from the left in any other European country taking in a million refugees and surviving politically."
“Despite everyone saying this election is boring, it’s actually crucial from a geo-strategic point of view,” Judy Dempsie, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. The result will determine what kind of a partner the U.S. has in Europe on issues such as North Korea, she said. “Whoever wins the election on Sunday will have to become far more involved in these major geo-strategic issues that are outside Europe.”
In terms of preferred outcomes, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) can hope for a narrow majority with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), or the environmentalist Greens, or an untried coalition with both.
Alternatively, the CDU will continue its so-called grand coalition of the biggest parties with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has seen its support erode to a historic low over the past decade. Martin Schulz, the SPD candidate and Merkel's main contender, is stuck in polls of about 20 percent support, and has been unable to make any headway against the CDU.
The biggest surprise, however, the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is expected to take at least 60 parliamentary seats in the election, after having narrowly failed to clear the 5% hurdle to enter parliament in 2013. It would be the first time in 60 years that a far-right party is represented in the Bundestag. AfD has been saying it will press for Merkel to be "severely punished" for opening the door to refugees and migrants, and attacked Islam by saying it "does not belong in Germany".
The outcome of today's election is also being closely watched in Paris, where President Emmanuel Macron is proposing measures to deepen integration in the euro area that depend on the support of Germany, Europe’s biggest economy as well as its dominant country under Merkel.
Once voting ends at 6pm local time, television exit polls will reveal if the chancellor has managed to outperform expectations as she did in the previous election in 2013. If the CDU/CSU and the FDP can get to a combined 48.5 percent or so - a level they’ve not managed in polling since late August - that would allow Merkel to reprise the business-friendly coalition she led from 2009 to 2013, according to Bloomberg.
If not, she has two alternatives: as noted above, the first is to try to add the environmentalist Greens to that coalition with the FDP, but it’s a combination previously untested at national level. The easier option might be to continue the “grand coalition” with the SPD, though that would face resistance among grassroots Social Democrats who would prefer to go into opposition. While agreement on a CDU-FDP coalition might take just a few weeks, other options could see talks dragging on for months.
Whatever the final distribution of seats, a fourth election victory for Merkel, western Europe’s most powerful political leader, would equal those for her CDU predecessors Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor, and Helmut Kohl, who oversaw German reunification in 1990. She’s said she plans to serve a full four-year term, which would equal Kohl’s record 16 years in office