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German election - press reacts with shock and worry

September 25, 2017

How have Germany's newspapers reacted to Sunday's election? And what did the world's newspapers have to say about it? DW has all the front-page news in our press roundup.

International newspaper front pages featuring reactions to Germany's election

The soporific election campaign turned out to be an eerie calm before a mighty political scare for Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU). The German chancellor suffered a diminished majority and has lost her comfortable centrist Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners, who scored their worst result since World War II.

Those blows were compounded by the collapse of her conservative partners in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), who scored less that 40 percent in a state where they normally command an absolute majority. And to salt the wound, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)will enter the Bundestag for the first time as the third-largest party.

So how has the media digested this fragmentation in Germany's political landscape? In keeping with their attitude over the last four years, many newspapers paid most attention to the AfD insurgency.

Infographic showing German election results

Main focus: AfD

Der Spiegel, Germany's leading weekly newsmagazine, was not alone in warning readers against complacency. "Because the AfD is no ordinary party," wrote Der Spiegel's Stefan Kuzmany. "Its ranks, even its leadership, include people who openly court far-right positions, who want to take a positive view of the German military's actions in World War II, who minimize the Holocaust and want to abolish the remembrance of it.

"And now those people will soon be sitting in the German parliament, the Bundestag. No, this is more than just common European right-wing populism. This is an attack on our liberal democracy, and the other parties, indeed the rest of society, must resist it. That will be our main task over the next four years."

The taz and the FAZ

The left-wing taz newspaper struck a similar note, predicting that "racists and reactionaries" would now lower the tone in the German parliament. "The AfD will provoke and snub, it will exaggerate and downplay, it will spread fear and incite aggression. That is what it lives on," wrote editor-in-chief Georg Löwisch.

"Only rarely does a wide audience follow the plenary debates on TV, and yet the Bundestag is a central political point, it is the nerve center of democracy. If the nerve center is attacked, then it can paralyze the organism. That must be prevented."

But, as the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) pointed out, that is how democracy works, and while "we will hear speeches that put us to shame" the AfD's success was "the manifestation of the protest against the unresolved questions of immigration."

Mathias Müller von Blumencron of FAZ also made a startling prediction: Merkel's new government — likely to be a four-way coalition between her CDU, the CSU, the re-energized Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens — would last a maximum of two years.

"Such coalitions are, experience shows, wearying and exhausting. … Maybe by then the AfD will have exposed itself enough. Maybe the SPD will have realized that opposition suits it even less than government. But surely the chancellor will then have decided that she's had enough. The result would be new elections, the end of the Merkel era, and a new government."

Guardian and the New York Times

Abroad, the press reaction was mostly shock and concern. "It is a sign of growing political fragmentation," wrote the British Guardian newspaper in its editorial. "It introduces into German federal politics an element of toxicity and polarization that anyone attached to liberal democracy can only be concerned about."

But elsewhere, the newspaper tried to soothe the pain by pointing out how polls showed that only 34 percent of AfD voters made their vote out of conviction for the party. "In short, the relationship between AfD and its voters is weak, and is mostly defined by opposition to other parties rather than by support for AfD itself," wrote columnist Cas Mudde optimistically.

The New York Times took a broader international view, and worried that Merkel would now be forced to pander to the lost right-wing voters — not least because the chancellor indicated as much in her post-election speech. "Hopefully, that goal — and negotiations with potential coalition partners — will not entail erosion of the values the chancellor has defended in the past," its editorial said.

"Since accepting more than a million refugees in 2015, Ms. Merkel's government sharply reduced the flow, partly through a deal with Turkey that has been criticized by human rights groups. Her handling of that, or any challenge she has faced, is open to criticism. But her non-ideological leadership has helped Germany, Europe and the world. Its continuation counterbalances the demagogy loosed on the world."

Divided views from Israel

The Israeli press carried contradictory headlines that reflected divergent views among Israelis on the AfD and its policies. Headlines in the left-leaning Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot trumpeted, "Radical right in the German parliament," reflecting fears of the AfD's entrance into the Bundestag. Though the AfD's election result drew criticism from Jewish leaders around the world, the party's anti-immigration and Islamophobic stance also finds sympathy among some Israeli citizens.

In an editorial for the right-wing Israel Hayom, journalist and author Eldad Beck described the AfD as "a nationalist-conservative protest party that managed to harness the growing rage in various sectors of the German population at mass immigration; at the terrorism, crime and violence associated with the arrival of Muslim 'refugees'."

"Some of its members are on the radical right, but certainly not all," Beck said in pointed contrast to the Yediot Ahronot headline.

Muted praise for 'Mutti'

Many European newspapers focused on the promise of four more years of Merkel in their post-election press coverage, and while some expressed relief that Germany would continue in stable hands, many also expressed concern about the chancellor's potential weaknesses and the resulting effects for the European Union. 

The Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, considered one of Poland's most influential media outlets, highlighted the positive continuity that a Merkel chancellorship would bring to the EU. "The country is stable, predictable and friendly," it wrote, adding that Germany will remaining the EU's most important nation regardless of the partners in the future government coalition.

Read more: Opinion: Sunny days are over for Angela Merkel

But the Danish daily broadsheet Jyllands-Posten welcomed the fact that a grand coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD seemed to have been taken off the table. "Germany needs a change and for the parties to differentiate themselves better," it said. 

However, El Mundo, Spain's center-right national newspaper, voiced concern over a potential "Jamaica" coalition, made up of Merkel's CDU/CSU along with the FDP and the Greens. With such a coalition, Merkel "will be obligated to give in on questionslike Brexit or solidarity politics with the southern [European] countries, putting political consensus within the European Union in danger."

The conservative-oriented French daily Le Figaro took an even more gloves-off approach in its criticism of Merkel, using the chancellor's "mommy" nickname and writing that "Mutti" had become the mother of the AfD. "Merkel's place in the history books is marred by the historic result of the populist AfD," it said.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight