'We were all really shocked:' Angela Merkel supporters have awoken to big gains by far right

So much for the snooze button. The gains made by Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party in Sunday's election — 12 per cent of the vote and a place in the Bundestag — are a shock to the system for many Germans.

'I think it's a protest to an extent, but we have to admit that these feelings do exist among German people'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to form a coalition government with smaller parties, given that her former partner, the Social Democratic Party, is choosing to return to opposition. (Matthias Schrader/Associated Press)

So much for the snooze button. That's how one political analyst in Berlin described the pre-election mood in Germany a few weeks ago: a desire by most voters for just four more years of relatively trouble-free slumber before the wake-up call.

They're awake now. The gains offered to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Sunday's election, 12 per cent of the vote and an entry into the Bundestag for the first time, are a shock to the system for many Germans.

"It comes with great challenges for democracy here in Germany, and we're not quite sure yet how to properly react," said Fedo Hagge-Kubat, a German voter speaking in the government quarter of Berlin.

A sign points in German to a polling station in Berlin Sunday morning. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"We were all really shocked," said Inge Furmann, a supporter of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union who watched the results from the party headquarters in Berlin last night.

"I think it's a protest to an extent, but we have to admit that these feelings do exist among German people, and we have to acknowledge this," she said.

The AfD was formed in 2013 as a protest against German eurozone bailouts. It shifted its focus to harness anger over the 2015 refugee crisis to increase its support in the lead to yesterday's vote.

"We did it!" AfD deputy leader and top candidate Alexander Gauland told supporters at a rally last night. "We are in the German parliament, and we will change this country."

Some would say they already have. Gauland caused an uproar earlier this year when he said Germany's integration minister Aydan Ozoguz, a German of Turkish descent, should be "disposed of" in the land of her ancestors.

Another senior AfD member has suggested that Germans should be proud of the actions of the country's soldiers during the Second World War.

Voters arrive at a polling station in Berlin on Sunday morning. The weather was wet, and the result a shock to some Germans. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Outraged protesters demonstrated against the AfD gains in a number of German cities overnight including Berlin, Frankfurt and Cologne.

Some German commentators have pointed the finger at the German Chancellor Angela Merkel for failing to see the threat coming from the far right and to act more stridently against it when she did.

Andrea Röemmele, a political scientist at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, suggests a certain amount of arrogance on the part of Merkel in handling the 2015 refugee crisis, with the chancellor more or less having devised her course of action on her own.

German Christian Democratic Union supporters listen to Angela Merkel speak Sunday after election exit polls were released. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"She didn't talk about that, and with cutting it from the public agenda she left a huge space for the AfD," she said.

But there is also a sense in Germany that the result of the vote is more nuanced than that, with some voters simply eager for a change after 12 years of Merkel government and not necessarily a change to the right.

"She's a calm leader, she's well thought about her decisions," said Matthias Milstrey, casting his ballot in a polling station yesterday.

"I think it's something that's helpful these days. If you look at all the right-wing parties that are coming up in Europe, all the changes in the U.S. right now … I think she's in a good position, but still think it's time for a change. She's doing it for 12 years now, and for me it's time for a change."

Angela Merkel spoke to supporters gathered at CDU Headquarters after exit polls were released. 'No question about it. We had hoped for a slightly better result,' she told them. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Merkel herself said as much when she took to the stage after the exit polls were released yesterday, saying it wasn't a given that the CDU would be returned to power after such a long period in government.

The party's 33 per cent showing in this election was its worst result since 1949, according to analysts, the CDU losing about a million votes to the AfD.

Whether or not she can get them back again will be one of the questions Germans — including members of her own party — will be asking in the weeks and months to come.

She'll first have to form a coalition government with smaller parties, given that her former partner, the Social Democratic Party, is choosing to return to opposition.

People will also be watching to see how all the mainstream parties deal with the new force in the Bundestag.

"I'm very much afraid of the fact that the AfD will use the Bundestag as a form of legitimization to legalize their kind of ideology," said Fedo Hagge-Kubat.

Xenophobia, anti-Semitism

"And I'm a little afraid that this house, the high house here, will become the sort of [voice], so to say, for these kind of ideologies of xenophobia, of anti-Semitism."

Of course there will be challenges for the AfD as well, the party already suffering yet another split within its leadership ranks. The squabbling is nothing new.

Andrea Röemmele believes the chances of the party defining itself into a disciplined and effective parliamentary force are questionable.

"They were very strong on what they are not for," she said. "They are against refugees. They are against Islam. They are against the Euro. But we don't actually know what they are for."

Not the time to hit the snooze button perhaps.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.