Angela Merkel will once again lead Germany, but her governing coalition is going to have to deal with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which rode a wave of anti-immigrant anger to claim a sizable chunk of seats in the Parliament for the first time, preliminary results from Sunday's election show.
But underneath the unsurprising headline, there’s a lot going on. Here’s what you need to know.
Gains for the center and the right
AfD, a hard-right, anti-Islam group not even represented in parliament in 2013, has become the third largest party. That might mean big changes to the character of a parliament that, thanks to the long shadow cast by Germany’s Nazi past, was largely free of hardline nationalism.
Elsewhere, the environmentalist Greens and classical liberal, centrist Free Democrats (FDP) both grew their share of the vote. The FDP had an especially good night; in 2013, voters chucked them out of parliament.
Christian Lindner, a senior FDP politician, addressed their voters with a simple message on Twitter: ”Just one word,” he wrote, “thanks.”
The surging popularity of both parties is reminiscent of the Dutch election in March, where both the hard-right Freedom Party, an ally of Germany’s AfD, and the liberal-centrist D66 performed well.
It’s a sign that, with mainstream politicians declining, Germans are happy voting with their gut feelings and shopping around for the offer that represents them best.
The traditional governing parties slumped
It’s nowhere near as dramatic as the French election, where neither of the two former mainstream parties even made the run-off. But even relatively stable Germany is seeing some voters flee from old establishment parties.
Both the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which finished second, and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with its sister the Christian Social Union (CSU) look to have lost large swathes of voters since the last election in 2013.
It’s important to remember that both the CDU/CSU and the SPD have been in government for the past four years, ruling in a so-called “grand coalition.” Voters in liberal democracies often choose to give their government a kicking at the ballot box.
But nonetheless, while voters in Germany have not opted for a French revolution, like people across the West, more of them seem to be looking to new places for political solutions.
The government will likely change
While Merkel herself looks set for another four years at the helm, the composition of her government is probably going to shift.
The SPD’s deputy leader Manuela Schwesig told the German broadcaster ZDF shortly after the exit poll dropped that her party would head out of government and into opposition. Many in the movement have been calling for just that; the party needs to rediscover a sense of purpose and a distinctive offer to voters, they argue.
If that’s true, it means that Merkel, who has said she will not work with the AfD, can only govern with the support of the both the Greens and the FDP.
That has a couple of important implications. Firstly, it might take some time to hammer out a deal.
There is much the three parties agree on; all of them sit somewhere broadly near the center of Germany’s political spectrum.
But there are important differences too. The Greens and FDP compete for some of the same voters, which means they historically have fought each other all the more fiercely, making much out of differences in approach. On climate policy, for example, the Greens tend to favor clean energy subsidies while the FDP often argue for a more competition-driven and market-led approach to energy reform.
But for the rest of the world, maybe the most important thing will be how it affects the future of the euro currency and the eurozone. The FDP is suspicious of deeper EU integration. If it digs its heels in on that issue, it could scupper plans being cooked up by Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to make the euro nations co-operate more closely.
There’s deep regional divides in Germany
The Northeast of the country—an area comprising the former communist East Germany—voted in much greater numbers for the AfD and the democratic socialist Left Party, and in much lower numbers for the CDU and the SPD.
A poorer area—only one of Germany’s 20 richest cities is in the region—economic discontent continues to help sustain a different political culture in the former east, 27 years since Germany was unified after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Merkel said on Sunday evening that she was ready to listen to the "concerns and anxieties" of AfD voters in order to win them back round.
Whatever else that involves, that process must include a concerted effort to speak to voters from the depressed former East; growing divisions can only threaten Germany’s enviable stability.