German Cliff-Hanger: Merkel Wins Big, but Everyone Could Lose

In Germany's election, the voters have spoken. We just don't yet know exactly what they've said

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Michael Sohn / AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks up when addressing supporters after preliminary election results were announced at the party headquarters in Berlin, Sept. 22, 2013.

The voters have spoken. We just don’t yet know exactly what they’ve said. Exit polls and the evidence of the first results in Germany’s national parliamentary elections suggest that two-term Chancellor Angela Merkel has won a significant victory, perhaps even a truly historic one. Some projections suggest her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are on course for an overall majority, the first time since 1957 that Germans have given their mandate to a single party or bloc. And even if the final tally thwarts a Merkel miracle, it’s clear that voters have given her a resounding endorsement. They want Merkel to lead the country, as she has done for almost eight years. But they don’t want her government back.

Her coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), have also notched up a potentially historic result: they may fail to reach the 5% threshold needed to enter the German Parliament, the Bundestag. Rainer Brüderle, the party’s lead candidate in the elections, described the result as a “dark hour” for his party, but the FDP’s nightmare will almost certainly last a lot longer than an hour. The Greens, now touted as a possible alternative coalition partner for Merkel, have also performed below expectations, polling something over 8% of the vote. The left-wing splinter party, Die Linke — the Left — seems to have done a bit better, but is unlikely to be invited to join a coalition. Like the Alternative für Deutschland — the Alternative for Germany — a Euroskeptic party that on its first national outing appears to have outpolled the FDP, Die Linke’s biggest impact will have been to take votes away from bigger parties.

The most likely outcome remains a grand coalition of Merkel’s CDU/CSU and her largest rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD). Merkel helmed a grand coalition in her first term in which Peer Steinbrück, her main challenger for the role of Chancellor, served as Finance Minister. He has ruled out a return to government in a new grand coalition, but that doesn’t mean his colleagues will refuse an invitation to negotiate. Speaking after polls closed, Merkel indicated she wouldn’t try to run a minority government if her bloc failed to secure an outright win. At this stage in what looks set to be a long night, the smart euros must be on another grand coalition.

But Germany’s intricate voting system, which seeks to make every vote count by creating extra parliamentary seats over and above the 598 notional total of Bundestag members, could yet deliver shocks and surprises. The last Parliament ended up with 22 extra seats or “overhang mandates.”

And it’s too early to tell if Merkel may actually have squeaked a majority of one or two seats. If she has, that might be the toughest result for her and the least satisfactory for everyone looking to Germany for leadership as the euro zone staggers from one crisis to the next. A narrow victory, leaving Merkel in thrall to the machinations of party colleagues and damaging her ability to take tough decisions, could make us all losers.