Despite the alarming travel warnings, there was no sign of al-Qaeda attempting to disrupt the German elections with a repeat of their dramatic 2004 strike in Spain. There was some heightened security, but the two armed guards at the polling station I visited on Sunday morning certainly didn’t look as if they expected trouble.

Instead, Berliners enjoyed the beautiful autumn weather, and it was still a mild evening when many of them gathered in front of the Reichstag building early this morning (Melbourne time) to watch the election results come in.

Not that the weather seems to have helped the turnout, which was down again (although still more than 70%). Young people are staying away and those who vote are turning strongly away from the established parties. The Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD), who once had more than 80% of the vote between them, are now less than 60%.

One of the advantages of nationwide proportional representation is that results are clear pretty early — in fact, they mostly just confirm the exit polls. It’s a little before 10pm as I write and the TV networks seem to have pretty much called it a night. The final numbers can vary a few tenths of a percentage point, but it’s not worth staying up late just for that.

The headline result is clear: CDU chancellor Angela Merkel has been returned and, although her party’s vote dropped slightly, she will be able to ditch the SPD and govern with just the Liberals (FDP), who won more than 14% of the vote — up from 9.8% in 2005.

Merkel poster with Hitler moustache

The SPD is the big loser: its vote plunged about 11%, to just over 23% — a record low in modern times. Instead, the votes are going to the smaller parties; not just the FDP, but also the Greens and the Left, who both recorded over 10%. And although no one else will reach the 5% threshold for representation, there were gains among minor parties as well, notably the Pirate party.

Nor was this a one-off thing, since the two state elections held the same day showed the same pattern. In Schleswig-Holstein, the three smaller parties won about 34% between them, up from just 13.4% last time.

So although the incumbent has been strengthened, this is not a vote for the status quo: Germans are dissatisfied with what they have been offered for so long, and in their calm, orderly way are saying they would like to try something a bit different.

Peter Fray

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