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Merkel's Conservatives Emerge As the Clear Winners
The European elections are the first big test of public opinion before September's general election in Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel's Conservatives emerged as the clear winners. The ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party in the state of Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won about 38% of the vote. With Germany in the middle of a deep recession, the result seems to be the voters' way of telling Merkel that they trust her leadership and her handling of the economic crisis.
"Angela Merkel is very popular. She's even more popular than her own party," Oskar Niedermayer, a professor of political science at Berlin's Free University, tells TIME. "Voters are confident Merkel will be able to steer Germany through difficult times. This election result is an important psychological boost for her."
But it was a bad night for the other big player in German politics, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The Social Democrats are licking their wounds after suffering a humiliating election result, with the party's share of the vote sinking to a historic low of just 21%. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Foreign Minister and SPD member who's standing against Merkel in the federal election, summed up the dismal mood in his party when he said, "This is a disappointing election result there's no talking around it."
Reflecting the miserable voter turnout across Europe, only 43% of Germans bothered to go to the polls. Social Democrats have been quick to point to the low turnout as a reason the European Parliament vote shouldn't be seen as a test for the upcoming federal elections. "I don't think you can reach any conclusions when the turnout for the European elections was so low," says Social Democrat MP Sebastian Edathy. "It's a different picture in the federal elections, when we normally have a bigger turnout of 70%-80%." Nevertheless, Edathy admits his party failed to reach out to its traditional supporters. "The SPD failed to mobilize its voters," he says. "But that is often the problem with European elections because our regular voters weren't able to relate to any European issues."
Meanwhile, there was a strong showing from some of the country's smaller parties. The Green Party won 12% of the vote, and the Left Party, successor to East Germany's Communist Party, took 7.5% of the vote. But the real winner was the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which won its best-ever result in a European election, with 11% of the vote. The FDP, under its outspoken leader Guido Westerwelle, is Merkel's preferred coalition partner. Their combined results leave Merkel's Conservatives and the FDP just short of the 50% they would need in September should the Chancellor decide to replace the current grand coalition of Conservatives and Social Democrats with a conservative-liberal alliance.
"This result shows the conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the liberals are the strongest force in German politics today," says Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa polling institute. But the Social Democrats say they're determined to claw back support before the federal elections on Sept. 27. It's an ambitious goal for a party that is hemorrhaging votes and can't seem to find a way out of the crisis.
Tristana Moore / Berlin