German Election Leaves Merkel’s Conservatives in Disarray

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel was standing two paces behind Armin Laschet, her party’s candidate to succeed her, stony-faced and with her hands clenched.

The first election results had just come in. The conservative camp had collapsed by 9 percentage points, the Social Democrats were winning — and Mr. Laschet was vowing to do “everything” to form the next government.

To watch the scene on Sunday night at conservative party headquarters was to watch power melt away in real time.

Germany’s once-mighty Christian Democratic Union is not used to losing. Five of eight postwar chancellors were conservatives and the current one is leaving office after 16 years as the most popular politician in the country.

But Sunday’s defeat, the worst since the party was founded after World War II, has revealed almost overnight a conservative movement not just in crisis and increasingly open revolt, but one fretting about its long-term survival.

“It has raised a question about our very identity,” Norbert Röttgen, a senior member of the Christian Democratic Union told public television ARD on Monday. “The last, the only big people’s party in Germany. And if this continues, then we will no longer be that.”

Yet beyond the conservatives’ disarray, what Germany’s messy vote says about the future of the country — and of Europe — is still hard to divine. It was an election filled with paradoxes — and perhaps one in which Germans themselves were unsure what they wanted.

The last government included both traditional parties on the center-right and center-left, making it harder to gauge whether Sunday’s vote was in fact a vote for change. Olaf Scholz, the chancellor candidate of the Social Democrats, campaigned against Ms. Merkel’s party — but he has served as Ms. Merkel’s finance minister and vice chancellor for the past four years and in many ways ran as an incumbent.

Some of the “change vote” went to him, but much of it was split between the progressive Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats whose economic agendas could not be further apart.

Overall, 45.4 percent of votes went to parties on the left — the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party — and 45.9 to those on the right, including the C.D.U., the Free Democrats and the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

But even if not a dramatic shift to the left, the devastation the returns have wrought on Ms. Merkel’s party are plain. With Ms. Merkel leaving, millions of conservative voters are leaving, too. Nearly 2 million voters shifted their support away from the Christian Democrats to the Social Democrats on Sunday, and more than 1 million defected to each of the Free Democrats and the Greens.

It was a splintered result that revealed a more fragmented society, one that increasingly defies traditional political labeling. And it appeared to spell a definitive end to the long era of Germany’s traditional “Volks”-parties, catchall “people’s” parties.

In their heyday both Social Democrats and Christian Democrats routinely got over 40 percent of the vote. A working-class organized in powerful labor unions voted Social Democrat, while a…

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