BERLIN,25 Sep (TNS): Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives beat their rivals on Sunday to win her a fourth term in an election that will also bring anti-Muslim, hard-right AfD party into Germany’s parliament for the first time in more than half a century.
Merkel, who after 12 years in power held a double-digit lead for most of the campaign, scored around 33 percent of the vote with her conservative Christian Union (CDU/CSU) bloc, according to exit polls.
Its nearest rivals, the Social Democrats and their candidate Martin Schulz, came in a distant second, with a post-war record low 20-21 percent.
But in a bombshell for the German establishment, the anti-Islam, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) captured around 13 percent, making it the country’s third biggest political force.
While the likelihood of the AfD winning seats was clear for months, commentators called its strong showing a “watershed moment” in the history of the German republic.
With four other parties predicted to clear the five-percent threshold to enter the Bundestag, the highest number since the 1950s, it could take months of coalition wrangling before the next government takes shape.
But mainstream parties have already ruled out talking to the anti-Islam, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is polling at 11 to 13 percent and could emerge as Germany´s third-strongest party.
Alarmed by the prospect of what Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel branded “real Nazis” entering the Bundestag for the first since World War II, politicians used their final days of campaigning to urge voters to reject the AfD.
“This Alternative for Germany is no alternative. They are a shame for our nation,” former European Parliament chief Schulz told a rally on Friday.
The latest surveys put support for Merkel´s conservative block at 34-36 percent, with the SPD trailing at 21-22 percent — which would translate into a historic low for the party.
Despite bracing for a drubbing, Schulz was all smiles as he and his wife cast their ballot in his western hometown of Wuerselen. Merkel and her husband voted at a polling station near their flat in central Berlin.
By 1200 GMT, turnout was steady compared to the 2013 election at about 41 percent, according to official figures.
Observers say a strong showing by the AfD, which has capitalised on anger over the influx of a million migrants and refugees since 2015, would hit Germany like a bombshell.
“If the AfD becomes the leading opposition party, they will challenge key themes,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “It will very much change the tone of debate in parliament.”
Aside from the populist noise, the past two months of campaigning have been widely criticised as lacklustre, with few hot-button issues dividing the main contenders.
Commentators say Merkel´s reassuring message of stability and prosperity has resonated in greying Germany, where more than half of the 61 million voters are aged 52 or older.
Schulz, on the other hand, has struggled to gain traction with his calls for a more socially just Germany at a time when the economy is humming and employment is at a record low.
The SPD has also found it hard to shine after four years as the junior partner in Merkel´s left-right “grand coalition”, marked by broad agreement on major topics, from foreign policy to migration.