German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Aug. 18. (Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

European elections countdown: In this part of our occasional series, we take a look at what is at stake in the German election.

BERLIN — After a campaign in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel's opponents largely failed to portray themselves as a political alternative, her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, CSU, won the most votes in Sunday's election, according to first projections.

The Social Democratic Party was dealt another humiliating defeat, whereas the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) will enter the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, as the third-biggest party with more than 13 percent of the vote, projections showed.

No far-right party has managed to send delegates to the German Parliament for more than half a century. The gains of the far-right, anti-immigrant AfD party were also bigger than predicted, and the party could establish itself as a vocal opposition movement to the right of Merkel's CDU.

How is the election likely to affect the United States?

Germany is the European Union's most populous nation and its economic powerhouse, and its two leading parties agree that Germany should stand against many of the policies pursued by President Trump, especially on trade and immigration. Merkel's victory is likely to strengthen her position in any future negotiations with the Trump administration.

How will Merkel become chancellor now that her party has won? 

Merkel's party may have won the most votes but not an outright majority. Merkel, as party leader, will start talks with other parties to form a governing coalition.

Coalition talks could last anywhere from days to months. When an agreement has been reached, the new ruling parties vote the chancellor into office in the Bundestag.

Given that all major parties have ruled out a coalition with the AfD, Merkel has only few choices, however.

Which coalitions would be possible, based on the first projections?

The CDU plus the libertarian Free Democrats and the Green Party

Merkel could enter a coalition with the libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Green Party. There are some caveats, though: The FDP was Merkel's coalition partner from 2009 to 2013. Afterward, it was voted out of Parliament. Many blamed the FDP's weakness as Merkel's junior partner for the party's subsequent historic losses.

However, this coalition currently appears like the only option for Merkel to stay in power in a majority government.

A “grand coalition”

This would have been the preferred option of many Germans, who said before the vote that they would prefer a continuation of the current “grand coalition” between the CDU (and its Bavarian sister party) and the SPD. It is the broadest-possible consensus between the two strongest mainstream blocs. However, the SPD has already ruled out a “grand coalition.”

 

A non-Merkel coalition

A possible failure by Merkel to persuade other parties to govern with her could result in a coalition without her. Theoretically, the Social Democrats could form a government with the Greens, the Left Party and the FDP. But giving power to the Left Party, a descendant of the former East German Communist Party, has long been treated as a non-starter.

It is extremely unlikely that all four parties would reach consensus on a coalition agreement, and the parties might still not have a majority in parliament, according to first projections.

What else should I read to delve deeper into the German election debate? 

Here are some suggestions:

  • Germany's far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, rode a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. It's now the country's third-highest-polling party, and chances are that it will get more than enough votes to have delegates in Parliament.
  • After opening Germany's doors to more than a million asylum seekers, Merkel became embroiled in a political crisis. The long-serving chancellor has withstood the controversy — for five main reasons.
  • In an interview with The Washington Post, German far-right leader Alexander Gauland, 76, nevertheless, argued that Merkel’s refugee policy enabled his party’s rise.
  • On the campaign trail, Merkel didn't mention her father much, and he rarely appears at her political events. But interviews with those who knew him offer insight into the world in which Merkel was raised.
  • In the past, young voters typically have chosen the Social Democrats, and increasingly the Greens, in the postwar era. Recently, however, Merkel’s CDU has captured the largest share of the youth vote. The “Merkel generation” sets Germany apart from other Western countries where young people identify more with the left.
  • Merkel's supporters praise the chancellor's consensus-based approach, especially after Donald Trump's victory in the United States and Britain's decision to leave the European Union. However, others fear that too much consensus in the center may drive some toward extreme alternatives. They argue that Merkel's dominance and reluctance to engage in direct political confrontations with her opponents are killing the lively political debate that defines democracies.

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