The Straits Times says

A testing time for Dr Merkel

The world was weary after the unexpected result of the US presidential election last November, preceded by the Brexit shock and, subsequently, this year's poor gamble on a snap poll made by British Prime Minister Theresa May. Thus hopes were high that the polls in Germany, Europe's de facto leader and biggest economy, would be less nerve-wracking, given the seemingly entrenched nature of Chancellor Angela Merkel's rule. Her enduring popularity centred around an endearing stolidity of personality and solid track record over 12 years in government. So, many expected to see her Christian Democratic Union (CDU)-led coalition sail through without a stutter and give her a seamless passage into a fourth term in office.

In the event, a surprise has ensued. While the CDU is still the biggest party in Parliament and Dr Merkel will remain in office, its vote share, at 33 per cent, is way below the 40 per cent it was expecting. The Social Democratic Union, CDU's partner, has had a historic loss and will move to the opposition. The anti-Islam, nationalist Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) has been a stunning gainer, with nearly 13 per cent of the vote, giving rise to considerable consternation. While AfD is nowhere near gaining power, the prospect of a far-right grouping on the ascendant in Germany rekindles Europe's worst memories. Dr Merkel was being more British than German when she said, with classic understatement, that she had expected "a better result".

While the outcome could be explained away as a consequence of Dr Merkel's idealistic decision to open the gates to a million refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East, it cannot be missed that a quarter of Germans have voted for parties that reject the status quo. Right-wing nationalists are now undeniably part of the German mainstream discourse. That lends credence to the theory that Dr Merkel paid for the perception that she was sacrificing Western heritage for a multicultural model. It should also be noted that the elections took place at a time when the German economy is strong, even if there is griping about static wages.

Whichever way you look at it, the German results are cause for disquiet. Europe, as it negotiates Britain's departure from the Union, has to contend with a chancellor likely to face perennial distraction on the home front.

Beyond Europe, those who had come to look upon her as the voice of the free world will now seek a fresh beacon, given Mr Donald Trump's fixation on pulling America into a shell. For its part, Asia's eyes turn to China, soon to hold its party congress, and Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called elections a year early. While the first should pass without incident, a less-than-sterling outcome for Mr Abe cannot be ruled out. The world could do without more unnerving surprises.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2017, with the headline 'A testing time for Dr Merkel'. Print Edition | Subscribe