Merkel's mandate? Chancellor eyes biggest German electoral win in decades

Early exit polls indicate that Angela Merkel's CDU may have surpassed expectations and won a single-party majority, a feat not accomplished since 1957.

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
German Chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union Angela Merkel smiles as she receives flowers after first exit polls in the German general election at CDU headquarters in Berlin Sunday evening.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party garnered an overwhelming number of votes in Sunday's federal election, and is flirting with the country's first absolute majority in over a half century.

It is the clearest evidence of how widely supported Mrs. Merkel is across Germany: The last time a party governed with an absolute majority was under Konrad Adenauer in 1957.

Early exit polls, by German broadcaster ARD, gave Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, Bavaria's Christian Social Union, 42.5 percent of votes, compared with the three left parties, which, combined, garnered 41.6 percent. The strongest of those, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), won just a quarter of votes. With the CDU-CSU bloc out-tallying the left parties – and the remaining votes going to smaller groups that failed to win seats – it could end up with a majority without the need for a single coalition partner.

"This is a super result," Merkel told her supporters after the exit polls were announced. But with typical restraint, she said final results must be awaited. "We will do all we can in the next four years together to make them successful years for Germany. It is too early to say how we will proceed, but today we should celebrate.”

Even if she doesn't squeak out an absolute majority, the CDU gained nine points from their last federal election results in 2009 – remarkable support for an incumbent after eight years in office, at a time when most leaders are politically punished for unmet expectations and voter apathy.

Instead, Germans adore the leader they call “Mutti," or "Mummy." In Merkel, they see a woman who has put Germany's economic interests first, and been slow and steady even as economies have crumbled across Europe.

“She thinks before she acts. She doesn't bite off more than she can chew,” says Oliver Stöwing, a lifestyle writer for the tabloid Bild after voting in Berlin Sunday. “I like 'Mummy.'”

The results are the best for any party since the reunification of Germany in 1990, which gave the CDU under Helmut Kohl 43.8 percent, writes Bloomberg News. Now Merkel is set to join history with Adenauer, Mr. Kohl, and Helmut Schmidt, as the leaders to govern for three terms.

It is an unlikely list to join, considering Merkel's past, as the Monitor published in a profile of her this weekend.

Originally from East Germany, Merkel was a physicist before entering public office. In fact, she didn't enter politics until her mid-30s, after the Berlin Wall fell. Her rise to the top has been astronomical since then, based on political talent, good instincts, and impeccable timing.

But she has also risen because she's been underestimated throughout her career, and it appears that this election could fit into that old narrative.

Her party was polling at over 40 percent leading into the race, but the big question that loomed was with whom she'd have to govern, given the declining popularity of her current coalition partner, the Free Democrats.

The FDP has flailed in this campaign, and it will likely not meet the 5 percent threshold needed to claim seats in Germany's Bundestag, or lower house. Jörg Bendt, voting in a polling station in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Wedding in Berlin, supports Merkel but cast his vote for the Alternative For Germany, the anti-euro party, which also is expected not to clear the 5 percent barrier.

“It was a little protest against the FDP,” he says. “The CDU has done a good job but I do not want the FDP to rule again.”

Given the FDP's poor polling numbers, political analysts anticipated that the most likely scenario – and one that is still the most likely possibility – is that the CDU would have to enter into a so-called grand coalition with the SPD, or possibly, though far more unlikely, with the Greens, who captured 8 percent of votes. The Left party won 8.5 percent, according to exit polls.

The left appealed to residents in both poor and wealthier neighborhoods in Berlin. Robin Sandkühler, who works as a marketing executive and supports what Merkel has done for the economy, says that he voted for the SPD because he says the government must now turn to the social problems in the country, including a widening gap between rich and poor. The SPD under leader Peer Steinbrück attempted to turn the race into a question of “social justice,” with calls for a blanket minimum wage and higher taxes on the rich.

But it appears that Germans preferred even more of "more of the same" – giving the CDU a much stronger mandate than polls, political analysts, and the politicians had predicted, and once again catching Merkel's rivals off guard.

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