Eyeing their neighbors' rising troubles, German voters Sunday gave a fourth term to the woman who vowed to “handle” any crisis: Angela Merkel.
Their message was clear — we want everything to stay the same.
Donald Trump's election in the United States, the National Front's gains in France and the rise of German nationalists had put the country on notice. But after two World Wars and experiences with fascism and communism, Germans value stability above all.
“For me, the important thing is to keep things as they are, that nothing changes and that the government continues to guarantee social justice,” said Ayhan Isik, a 20-year-old student who voted for the first time Sunday.
But that's just one side of the elections, regarded here as almost boring because Merkel was the sure winner. The headlines focused on Alternative for Germany (AfG), a far-right party that won 12.6 percent of the votes, giving it its first-ever seats in the federal parliament and making it the country's third-largest political force.
“It's the first time since World War II that a party with elements of neo-Nazi ideology is elected to parliament,” said Hanno Harnisch, spokesman for The Left party.
“It's very embarrassing for Germans, especially considering our history,” added Frank Buchwald, editor of the ZDF public television channel.
Analysts quickly noted that the political shift is not exclusive to Germany, because other European countries have also seen right-wing parties growing stronger and voters turning their backs on traditional parties. They had estimated that about 10 percent of German voters would follow the trend.
What's new now is that they have a party to vote for. The fear of the far-right drove up voter turnout, which hit 76.2 percent. Protests erupted in Berlin and other cities against what many view as a populist, nationalist and racist party.
“I am very scared,” said Christian Offer, 47, a Berlin teacher who voted for the Green Party. “I see conditions that are similar to the ones that allowed the rise of the Nazis.”
AfD won enough votes to enter the federal parliament because it played to the anger of many voters and benefited from free publicity sparked by its provocative statements, said Buchwald. The refugee crisis in 2015 was the perfect opportunity to exploit those fears.
It's a script well known to U.S. voters.
“They break a taboo, spark a lot of indignation, and then they get free publicity without having to talk about their politics,” said Buchwald. “We were not prepared for nationalist party that uses phrases that no one else would have dared use.”
AfD leaders, preparing for a difficult arrival in parliament deny what they call an image created by political rivals and the news media.
“The allegations are unjust and unacceptable,” said Christian Buchholz, one of the 23 AfD members who won seats in the state parliament of Berlin. Members with neo-Nazi leanings have been expelled from the party, he said, adding that the AfD does oppose the “bad immigration” of people from North Africa and the Middle East. He mentioned the case of Maria Ladenburger, a German student allegedly raped and murdered by an Afghan immigrant.
The party is skeptical of the European Union, supports “traditional family values” and rejects illegal immigration, sanctions on Russia and the argument that climate change is caused by humans.
Spokesman Ronald Gläser agreed the party will find it hard to gather the support of other parties it would need to get any of its policies approved in the federal parliament. And many analysts are betting that the party will not last long because of its many internal disputes.
Even so, Merkel will face many difficulties in coming months. The stability that she represents for many voters does not mean she has no critics.
“It's difficult to describe non-movement,” said a Der Spiegel journalist who asked to remain anonymous, referring to what some regard as an irritating side of Merkel: Her tendency to avoid taking sides in controversies and to react rather than propose new policies. “She is a stabilizing factor, but she tends to wait until the last minute to take a position.”
Merkel has indeed taken some surprising decisions, especially to open Germany's doors to nearly 1 million refugees from Syria and elsewhere in 2015. Although initially backed by a majority of Germans, the move cost her political support and tensions remain.
Just days before the elections, for example, visitors saw police questioning young immigrants in Berlin's iconic Alexanderplatz. There's also concern about the integration of immigrants, especially adults who find it harder to learn German.
Although Merkel survived the criticisms, her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) , allied with the Social Christian Union of Bavaria (CSU), won only 33 percent of the votes Sunday. The votes her party lost were picked up by the AfD and the liberal Free Democratic Party, which returned to the federal parliament with 10.7 percent of the votes.
THE FALL OF THE SOCIAL DEMOCRATS
Negotiating Merkel's new government could take months, especially because her main rival, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), announced Sunday that it would not renew its ruling coalition with Merkel. That coalition had allowed her to rule with a comfortable majority.
The Social Democrats were in fact the big losers in Sunday's balloting.
Beer in hand, hundreds of people gathered in Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt plaza Saturday to listen to the last speech by SDP leader Martin Shulz. Many laughed at the jokes by Shulz, a former president of the European Parliament criticized by rivals because he lacks a university education.
“Martin Schulz is a good speaker. He seems authentic, speaks in your language and the SPD has met more of its promises” than Merkel, said Anje Jurke, a 50 year-old-woman clearly enthusiastic about the speech.
But there was much less enthusiasm at a party gathering Sunday to await the election results. When the first exit polls were announced, party members were shocked. The party won 20.5 percent of the votes, its worst performance since 1949.
“The SPD has a built-in deficit because the CDU has more loyal, long-term voters,” said Oskar Niedermayer, director of Political Science Institute at the Freie Universitat Berlin.
The Social Democrats were also victims of their own success, the so-called “grand coalition” they formed with the CDU. Schulz did not manage to project a distinct position for voters on critical issues like immigration, jobs, crime and pension payments, Niedermayer added.
Schulz also found it difficult to criticize Merkel and the government. Germans joked that their only televised debate sounded more like a duet because they agreed on almost everything.
That's why Schulz announced that his party would not form a new ruling coalition and would move to the opposition. Merkel will need the support of the Free Democrats and the Greens to form a new government, which many analysts believe will be difficult.
The SPD has another incentive for rejecting a new ruling coalition. If Merkel does manage to form a government, the Social Democrats would become the largest opposition party instead of the AfD.
Merkel will have a difficult time persuading the other parties to join her coalition, especially the Greens, which would no doubt have to put aside some of their policy platforms. Party leaders have promised tough negotiations.
“It's a big challenge. I see a lot of difference with the other parties. We will start negotiations and present our 10-point program,” said Greens leader Simone Peter. “We want these parties to move forward on social justice issues. If not, we will have to wait for the next couple of years.”
But there's one problem that Merkel will not have to face. At no time before, during or after the campaign, was she criticized for being a woman.
“Merkel has represented Germany for so long that it's normal,” said high school student Charlotte Compton. “Her being a woman is not an issue here.”
Nora Gámez Torres traveled to Germany as part of the Goethe-Institut Visitors Program, sponsored by the German Foreign Ministry.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres.