Chastened Merkel looks for coalition partners

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Chancellor Angela Merkel faces difficult talks as the far-right AfD party enters parliament. AFP

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s Angela Merkel began the tough task of trying to build a coalition government yesterday after securing a fourth term as chancellor in an election which saw her support slide and the far right making significant gains.

Damaged by her decision two years ago to allow one million migrants into Germany, Ms Merkel’s conservative bloc secured 33 percent of the vote, losing 8.5 points – its lowest level since 1949. Her coalition partners, the centre-left Social Democrats, also slumped and said they would go into opposition.

Voters flocked to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), the first far-right party to enter the German parliament in more than half a century. However, the AfD hardly had time to savour its third-place showing before it fell into internal bickering.

Many Germans see the rise of the AfD as a similar rejection of the status quo as votes for Brexit and Donald Trump last year. But Germany’s political centre held up better than in Britain and the United States as more voters have benefited from globalisation and most shun the country’s extremist past.

Ms Merkel’s party remained the biggest parliamentary bloc and Europe’s most powerful leader said
her conservatives would set about building the next government. She said she was sure a coalition would be agreed by Christmas.

Ms Merkel made clear yesterday she intended to serve a full four years as chancellor.

“My decision (to stand for a full term) last year did not depend on what percentage I scored,” she said, adding she went into the election campaign with “no illusions” that her fourth term could be difficult.

Ms Merkel said she believed that voters had given their verdict now and that the parties should accept the election outcome by trying to form a government and avoiding new elections.

Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrats that have governed with Ms Merkel since 2013, said his party had no choice but to go into opposition after dropping to a postwar low of 20.5 percent.

“We have understood our task – to be a strong opposition in this country and to defend democracy against those who question it and attack it,” Mr Schulz told party members to applause.

Investors were unsettled by the prospect of a weaker Ms Merkel at the head of a potentially unstable coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens.

They are also worried that months of coalition talks could distract from negotiations with Britain over its divorce from the European Union and efforts to push further integration

Many Germans were alarmed by the rise of a party likened by the foreign minister to Nazis. Protesters threw stones and bottles at police outside the AfD’s campaign party in Berlin on Sunday evening.

But just a day after the election, the AfD showed signs of fracturing as co-leader Frauke Petry, one its most prominent faces, said she would not sit in parliament with AfD members. It was not immediately clear why she was making such a move.

The election also exposed divisions in Ms Merkel’s conservatives, with her allies the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) demanding a shift to the right to win back voters lost to the AfD.

CDU Saxony Anhalt premier Reiner Haseloff called for the party to do more to address voter fears over immigration policy, while other party members warned against shifting to the right.

Leading AfD candidate, Alexander Gauland, gave a foretaste of the hostile new tone expected in parliament, saying it would “hound” Ms Merkel and “get our country and our people back”.

After the SPD ruled out another “grand coalition”, Ms Merkel’s only other choice is to pursue a three-way partnership between her conservatives, the FDP and the Greens.

Such an alliance could be fragile due to deep differences on issues from migrants to tax, the environment and Europe.

In particular, the prospect of Ms Merkel sharing power with the FDP is likely to create problems for deeper integration of the eurozone as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

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