BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives triumphed in Germany’s election Sunday and appeared likely to end up close to an absolute majority. While Merkel was headed for a third term, her center-right coalition partners faced ejection from parliament for the first time in post-World War II history.
Depending on which parties end up in parliament, Merkel could find herself leading a “grand coalition” government with the left-leaning Social Democrats or — less likely — with the environmentalist Greens. Either way, several weeks of difficult negotiations are expected. Each combination might bring a slightly softer tone to Europe’s debt crisis, but probably without any significant policy shifts.
Merkel, Germany’s chancellor since 2005 and the de facto leader of the response to Europe’s debt crisis over the past three years, told supporters it was “a super result.” She wouldn’t immediately speculate about the shape of the next government, but the 59-year-old made clear she plans to serve a full term.
“I see the next four years in front of me and I can promise that we will face many tasks, at home, in Europe and in the world,” Merkel said during a television appearance with other party leaders.
If her current coalition lacks a majority and the conservatives can’t govern alone, the likeliest outcome is a Merkel-led alliance with the Social Democrats. The two are traditional rivals, but governed Germany together in Merkel’s first term after an inconclusive 2005 election.
“The ball is in Merkel’s court,” her center-left challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, said. “She has to get herself a majority.”
A “grand coalition” could result in a greater emphasis on bolstering economic growth over the austerity that Germany has insisted on in exchange for bailing out economically weak European countries such as Greece.
Merkel’s conservatives, the Social Democrats and Greens “have largely similar positions” on Europe, said Oscar Gabriel, a political science professor at Stuttgart University. He noted, however, that “there are a few nuances,” with the center-left parties more open to limited pooling of European countries’ debt — something the chancellor has refused to countenance.
Merkel’s conservative Union bloc won about 42 percent of the vote, an improvement of more than eight points over Germany’s last election in 2009, according to ARD and ZDF television projections based on exit polls and partial counts. They showed the conservatives falling just short of an absolute majority — which is possible because parties need 5 percent support to claim seats in the lower house. Many small parties miss that threshold, meaning their votes don’t count in the division of seats.
Her coalition partners of the past four years, the pro-business Free Democrats, were projected to win about 4.8 percent.
Nevertheless, the Union’s strong showing was a personal victory for Merkel, solidifying her position as Europe’s strongest political leader.
“We will do everything together in the next four years to make them successful years for Germany,” Merkel said. Merkel was interrupted by cheers and chants of “Angie! Angie! Angie!” as she made a brief appearance at her party’s headquarters.
Steinbrueck’s Social Democrats trailed well behind Merkel’s party with up to 26.5 percent, projections showed. Their Green allies polled 8 percent, while the hard-line Left Party scored 8.5 percent. Even if they end up with a combined majority, there’s virtually no chance of them governing together.
The Left Party includes heirs of East Germany’s former communist rulers, opposes German military deployments abroad and is the only party that voted against Merkel’s policies of bailing out debt-troubled European countries in exchange for reforms. The two center-left parties on Sunday renewed promises not to form an alliance with the Left.
“We did not achieve the result we wanted,” Steinbrueck told supporters. He said that he wouldn’t engage in “speculation” about the next government.
It wasn’t clear whether a new party that calls for an “orderly breakup” of the eurozone, Alternative for Germany, would win seats in parliament’s lower house. The exit polls showed them polling up to 4.9 percent — just shy of enough for seats. Merkel and others have said they won’t deal with the party.
Merkel wouldn’t comment on whether she would govern with a thin one-party majority. True to her methodical style, she said she would wait for the final result and then proceed “step by step.”
However, Steinbrueck and the Greens’ Juergen Trittin said they wouldn’t advise their parties to join a coalition with Merkel if she didn’t need them to govern. Whatever the outcome, Merkel will have to deal with her center-left rivals to get legislation through parliament’s upper house, which represents Germany’s 16 state governments and which her rivals control.
The exit polls were greeted by shocked silence at the Free Democrats’ election event. Four years ago, the party won nearly 15 percent of the vote, its best-ever result — but the party has taken much of the blame for squabbling in Merkel’s governing coalition since then.
“It’s the bitterest, saddest hour of the Free Democratic Party,” the party’s leader, Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, said.
Gabriel, the political scientist, said conservative voters who voted for the Free Democrats in 2009 “returned in droves” to Merkel. The smaller party “isn’t considered competent by the voters anymore,” he said.
Merkel’s party ran a feel-good campaign that centered squarely on Merkel’s personal popularity and, opponents complained, largely avoided controversial issues. Recent polls gave her popularity ratings of up to 70 percent, but the sky-high ratings didn’t extend to her coalition.
Merkel has called her second-term coalition “the most successful government since reunification” 23 years ago. She pointed to the robust economy and unemployment which, at 6.8 percent, is very low for Germany and far below that of many other European countries.
The new Alternative for Germany’s leader, Bernd Lucke, said it had “taught the other parties to be scared,” whether or not it enters parliament. The party appealed to protest voters on the right; Lucke said it had “strengthened democracy in Germany.”
Merkel has pursued a hard-nosed course in the euro crisis — insisting on spending cuts and economic reforms in exchange for bailout struggling countries such as Greece. The bailouts haven’t been popular, but Germany has largely escaped the economic fallout from the crisis, and Merkel has won credit for that.
Europe played only a very limited role in the election campaign, which was dominated by domestic issues such as center-left calls for tax increases on high earners and a national minimum wage, which Merkel rejected.
___ Associated Press correspondents Frank Jordans and Kirsten Grieshaber contributed to this report.