German voters rewarded Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in national elections on Sunday, sending the chancellor to a record fourth term as one of Europe’s key leaders, while a far-right party in the country made some initial and possibly disruptive gains.
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Exit polls conducted for public television channels ARD and ZDF suggest Merkel's conservative bloc finished first in Germany's election, with between 32.5 and 33.5 percent in Sunday's vote.
Polling indicates challenger Martin Schulz's Social Democrats trailed in second place, with between 20 and 21 percent support. The polls also suggested that the anti-migrant, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will enter the national parliament -- for the first time -- with 13 to 13.5 percent support.
The AfD party scored higher than expected results, with dozens of lawmakers from the party voted into the country’s national Parliament -- or Bundestag. The gains could potentially be disruptive to politics in Germany, the largest economy in Europe.
AfD head Alexander Gauland told supporters on Sunday that as the third largest party, the government should "dress warmly.”
“We will hunt them. We will hunt Mrs. Merkel, or whoever else. We will get our country and our people back,” he said.
A little over a year ago, few gave the AfD any chance of making a dent in German national elections. But the party saw growing support as election day neared.
"It's without question a significant achievement for a right-wing party when you view it historically,” said Karen Donfried, the president of the German Marshall Fund, referring to AfD. Because of its Nazi history, German voters have usually rejected right-wing parties in elections, she said. “But this is a significant shift for the German political landscape,” Donfried noted.
Founded in 2013 as an anti-European Union party, the AfD shifted its focus from the eurozone debt crisis to immigration after Merkel in 2015 opened the doors to over one million migrants, many of whom were fleeing war in the Middle East.
Since then, the party has increasingly found success by becoming the most visible anti-immigration party in Germany. It scored well in a series of regional elections thanks largely to a growing public anger over Merkel's welcoming policy toward refugees, particularly those from Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Gideon Botsch, a political scientist at the University of Potsdam just outside Berlin, said AfD's success is partly a result of the disillusionment voters feel with Germany's established political parties.
“Many voters, especially on the right, but also in the center, have felt that the two traditional parties have not addressed the issue of immigration and German cultural identity,” Botsch said. “And that has led them to consider voting for the AfD.”
Despite her party’s victory, the path ahead for Merkel and her party is fraught with challenges.
Leaders of the Social Democratic Party announced shortly after polls closed that they plan to go into the opposition after their second-place finish. The Social Democrats have been Merkel's junior coalition partner for the last four years.
That decision complicates the situation for Merkel, who will have to look to other parties to form a new government coalition.
“That is likely to have the biggest impact on Germany’s political direction for the next four years and shape what Merkel can or can’t do politically,” says Sudha David-Wilp, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.