Exit polls released after the German federal elections on Sept. 24 show that Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian partners, the Christian Social Union (CSU), received roughly 33 percent of the vote, followed by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) with around 21 percent. Most notably, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) ended in third place, receiving more than 13 percent of the vote. While the exact results have yet to be announced, the Bundestag (Germany's federal assembly) that will emerge will be the most fragmented in decades, and there will probably be long negotiations to form the next German government.
The results show that many German voters still see Merkel as a beacon of stability, moderation and prosperity after 12 years of government. But they also show that many voters have gone over to smaller political forces to the right of the CDU. While the CDU's performance was worse than what opinion polls predicted, AfD will enter the Bundestag for the first time and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) will return to the legislature after four years. The SPD also continues to lose support, because if the exit polls are confirmed, it will be the party’s worst performance in the postwar period. There is some degree of fragmentation to the left of the political spectrum as well, as the environmentalist Greens and the far-left The Left seem to have slightly improved their performances from the previous election in 2013. So, six parties will be represented in the next Bundestag from the four that were present in the previous legislature.
Two coalitions are possible. The current "grand coalition" between the CDU and the SPD could be repeated: It would control a comfortable majority in the Bundestag. But SPD leader Martin Schulz said after the election that the party will not enter a coalition government, opting to move to the opposition instead. The other option is for the CDU to negotiate with two smaller parties, the FDP and the Greens, to form a coalition. There's no precedent for this coalition at the federal level. The FDP and the Greens, moreover, have different views on issues such as taxes and public spending. In theory, the CDU could try to form a minority government, receiving support from other parties on a case-by-case basis. But there aren't any precedents for that scenario either.
Meanwhile, AfD's strong performance is highly symbolic. The party was created only four years ago as a protest party against the eurozone, but over time it adopted a strong anti-immigration position and has now become the third most popular force in Germany. While the arrival of asylum seekers in Germany has decreased dramatically since the peak of the migration crisis in 2015, opinion polls show that immigration remains an important concern for German voters, which is one of the main factors behind AfD's success. AfD won't enter the German government, because the other parties will refuse to cooperate with it. But Bundestag membership means that AfD will receive money, resources, and more visibility. It also means that the party will have to present bills and vote for laws, which will force it to make decisions that it didn't face while it was outside the Bundestag. Other anti-establishment parties in Europe have watched their popularity decline after entering parliament.
Regardless, starting Sept. 25, Merkel's party will have to enter complex coalition negotiations with smaller political forces that have little in common with each other. In the past, it's taken several weeks, and even months, to form government coalitions. That means German parties may be too preoccupied with domestic issues to work on external issues, from EU reform to the Brexit process. The French government plans to present new proposals for eurozone reform on Sept. 26, while the British government hopes to reinvigorate Brexit talks starting next week. But Berlin will probably have more urgent issues, potentially postponing debates about the future of Europe.