The leadership of the hardline Alternative for Germany party was in disarray Monday, a day after its historic breakthrough in the German elections delivered a stinging blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s authority.
At a press conference in Berlin that was intended to burnish the AfD’s success, its chairwoman Frauke Petry walked out. She declared that she would not sit with the party in the Bundestag and said it had to address dissent within its own ranks.
The AfD won 13% of the vote and came a stunning third place behind the main center-right and center-left parties.
It polled particularly strongly in the former East Germany, which includes Berlin, attracting 21.5% of the vote, according to exit polling conducted by Infratest Dimap. In the West, it scored about 11%, the projections said. The results put the AfD on course to become the second largest party in the east, after the CDU.
The AfD becomes the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag since 1961. But it has been riven with internal strife: Petry has been regarded as a more moderate force in the party, arguing that it had to break with the far right in order to move from opposition into government.
It appeared Petry’s actions were an attempt to provoke a wider split. She had already lost an internal battle to oust a regional AFD leader who denounced a holocaust memorial, and her dramatic walkout seemed designed to make voters question which leader represented the “real” AfD.
“Today we must be open that there is internal dissent within the AfD,” Petry said at the press conference. “We must not be silent about this. The community needs to know that we have controversial debates.” She told reporters later that she would sit in the Bundestag as an independent and would do her “utmost” to work for a shift to the right in the next federal elections in 2021.
As the AfD divisions burst into the open, Merkel acknowledged her party had failed to do enough to prevent the drift to the far right. She vowed “to focus on those who went to the AfD.”
Voters punished Merkel for her decision in 2015 to allow more than a million refugees into the country at the height of the European migrant crisis. Merkel said that the particular circumstances of the migrant crisis were unlikely to be repeated.
Preliminary results showed Merkel’s CDU/CSU group would still be the largest bloc in the Bundestag, but with its lead cut to 33.5%, down from 41.5% in 2013 – the party’s worst result since 1949.
Her former partners in government, the center-left SPD, decided to return to opposition after exit polls suggested its share of the vote fell to 21.6% from 25.7% in 2013. It was the SPD’s lowest share of the vote since 1945.
The results delivered a significant realignment of the Bundestag. Two smaller parties – the Left party and the pro-business FDP – joined the AfD in surpassing the 5% vote threshold required to enter the national parliament. The proliferation of smaller parties complicates Merkel’s coalition-building task.
To secure her fourth term in office, Merkel is expected to attempt to make a deal with the Green Party and the FDP – the so-alled “Jamaican coalition” option (the green and yellow of the two smaller parties combine with the black of the CDU to resemble the flag of Jamaica). The new grouping would be significantly weaker than the previous government, a “grand coalition” between Germany’s two biggest parties.
Merkel said she was confident that a new government would be in place before Christmas, and noted that no other group could build a coalition against her. But she faces a tough battle to build a government that is strong enough to hold back the rise of the AfD.
There is no guarantee that Merkel will come to a deal with the FDP and the Greens – both parties bitterly oppose each other and will be wary of the fate of the SPD, which suffered from its proximity to Merkel in the last government and struggled to mount an effective election campaign under leader Martin Schultz.
“The most likely strategy for Merkel will be delay, delay, delay,” Henning Mayer, editor-in-chief of Social Europe and a member of the SPD told CNN.
He said that whatever government transpires, talks could well go on until Christmas and beyond, and that she might prefer to prolong the staus quo for as long as possible.
“She will be ground down by this, if she manages to form a coalition government at all.”
Professor John Ryan of the London School of Economics IDEA unit agreed. “Eight weeks is usually the norm, but 12 weeks isn’t out of the question here. It means there won’t be a government in place until 2018.”
CNN’s Atika Shubert contributed from Berlin.