BERLIN -- Germans went to the polls on Sunday and voted for continuity, stability and a more market-friendly coalition of conservatives and moderates, satisfied with the stolid leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom many Germans affectionately call "mutti," or mother.
What they may have gotten, however, is a coalition that will now cautiously begin economic reform. With unemployment expected to rise in the months ahead, this could prove long overdue or a recipe for turmoil.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and its Christian Social Union partners in Bavaria won a plurality of the national vote and will now form a new government with the centrist Free Democrats. This ends the "grand coalition" of conservatives and social democrats that governed Germany the last four years, an uneasy marriage that had obviously worn out its welcome with German voters.
The renewal of Merkel's mandate was never in doubt -- the only question was who would be her governing partner. Her win gives President Obama a predictable counterpart here, and her new alliance with the Free Democrats will undoubtedly be more stable than a continuation of her fraying coalition with the Social Democrats.
"Germany is undergoing the most profound realignment of its party system in recent history." -- Jan Techau, director of European policy studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations
Those benefits, however, mask potential frictions between Germany and the U.S. over how best to revive the global economy and how to deal with Afghanistan, Iran and a number of other foreign policy concerns in the long run.
Moreover, the outcome presages a profound political realignment here. The poor showing by the Social Democrats, long the predominant force on the left but which yesterday garnered a smaller portion of the vote than at any time since World War II, is likely to trigger political change unprecedented in modern times. Germany is now firmly a multiparty system: In 1998 the two major parties garnered 76 percent of the national vote, but yesterday they received just 57 percent.
"Germany is undergoing the most profound realignment of its party system in recent history," observed Jan Techau, director of the center for European policy studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
One result is likely to be divisive votes in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's parliament, on issues such as the presence of German troops in Afghanistan. And, with rising unemployment and promises by the new government to revive the nuclear power industry, policy disagreements could turn ugly as various populist factions contend for leadership of the left.
"If Angela Merkel takes the decision to renew the nuclear economy, you will have hundreds of thousands of people in the streets," warned Eberhard Sandschneider, director of the research institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations, citing just one example.
This domestic turmoil could rapidly distract and preoccupy the country's leadership, denying the Obama administration the strong German partner it wants in dealing with global challenges.
Preliminary exit polling results had the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists winning about 34 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats won 23 percent. The Free Democrats received nearly 15 percent. The Left party captured 12 percent. And the Green party won nearly 11 percent.
This outcome should give the Christian Democrats, Christian Socialists and Free Democrats a majority in the new Bundestag.
The Christian Democrat/Christian Socialist portion of the vote actually declined slightly compared with their total in 2005, but Merkel's hand is probably strengthened. She campaigned advocating a coalition with the Free Democrats, which many here think encouraged some of her supporters to throw their votes to that party to ensure its success.
Moreover, the Christian Democratic campaign focused almost exclusively on Merkel as a symbol, casting her as the party's standard bearer. "We vote for the chancellor," proclaimed one prominent poster, proudly reminding voters that Merkel is Germany's first female leader while appealing to the power of incumbency. Her demonstrated cult of personality should help her in future intraparty squabbles, at least for the first two years of her four-year term.
Before the election, Merkel faced dissension from members of her party who thought she had abandoned conservative principles in day-to-day policymaking. Now she will face pressure from her right to make good on her campaign promises to cut taxes and begin to reduce Germany's looming government debt, a difficult pair of potentially contradictory objectives.
The Free Democrats garnered their highest vote total in the postwar era and return to government after 11 frustrating years in the wilderness. They are strong supporters of lower taxes, less government regulation, fewer public subsidies and nuclear power. Some of these positions may clash with policies backed by the party's conservative partners, including Merkel's bailout of General Motors subsidiary Opel and subsidies for renewable energy that benefit the Bavarian farmers who are the cornerstone of the Christian Social Union vote. Nevertheless, the Free Democrats will be eager to demonstrate that they can make a difference. And they will push Merkel to accelerate economic reform.
The Social Democrats' total was more than 5 percentage points lower than their worst postwar showing, in 1953. It was evidence of the further splintering of the German left, a process that began with the creation of the Green party in the 1980s and worsened in 2007 with formation of the Left party, largely made up of former communists from Eastern Germany and disgruntled left-wing members of the Social Democratic Party.
The Social Democrats ran under several handicaps. Leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier was a party bureaucrat, uneasy on the stump, who had never before run for office. Moreover, as the junior member of the ruling coalition, the Social Democrats had difficulty attacking government policies for which they bore some responsibility. Steinmeier, as the foreign minister, had to remain mute about the Afghanistan war, despite the fact that 3 in 5 German voters want the country's 4,000 troops out. And, disgruntled with cutbacks in social welfare programs that an earlier SPD government initiated, German labor unions withheld their formal endorsement of Social Democratic candidates for the first time.
Now the party is likely to shed the leadership that led it to this inglorious defeat and try to unify the German left. "The Social Democrats will have to pull off the almost impossible," said Techau, "somehow reconciling themselves with their left wing and with the Left party without alienating too many middle-of-the-ground voters."
Their task will be made all the harder by the unprecedented success of the Left party and the Greens, both of whom won a higher percentage of the votes than ever before. In the run-up to the election, all parties forswore a coalition with the Left. But the Social Democrats said it was a one-time promise. Observers here expect more Social Democrat-Left party coalition governments at the state and city levels in the years ahead.