As the first exit poll flashed up on the screens inside the Konrad Adenauer Haus, the Berlin headquarters of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party faithful who had gathered in the central courtyard fell silent.
The black bar representing their conservative party showed up first: 25%, the worst result the dominant political force of modern German politics – the party of Angela Merkel, Helmut Kohl and Adenauer – has achieved in its history. Until today, the CDU’s low point was the 31% it had gained at the first democratic vote in the postwar era, in 1949.
“Vote what makes Germany strong”, urged a large banner outside the building, showing the head of CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet in a line next to its era-defining chancellors. But tonight the CDU looked weak, and Laschet will face an uphill struggle to inherit the chancellory on the back of such a painful result.
The CDU not only has history, however, it also has an uncanny inability to give up a fight. When the television screen showed the bar for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), revealing the two traditional broad-church parties to be neck-and-neck, there were yelps of relief.
By the time it was clear that a leftwing coalition between the SPD, the Greens and Die Linke would on first exit polls not have enough support for a governing majority, young Christian Democrats were cheering and clapping with their hands in the air.
When Laschet took to the stage at his party HQ at shortly before 7pm CET, his speech was almost upbeat: “We knew this would be an open and tight election”, he said. “We can’t be happy with the result, but this will be a long evening”.
Like Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate, he laid down a claim to lead the next government. Every vote for his party was a vote against a leftwing government, he said “which is why we will do everything to form a government under the leadership of the [Christian Democratic] Union”.
During the Merkel era, Germany’s conservatives had long looked immune to the erosion in support suffered by other traditional parties of the centre-right across Europe. In 2013, the chancellor shored up 41.5% of the national vote behind her party, an emphatic win reminiscent of the time in the middle of the 20th century, when Germany was a de-facto two party state.
Now that the CDU has caught up with the rest of Europe, it is unclear what the ramifications will be. Rightwingers in the party will blame Merkel for having gutted her conservative outfit of its old ideological core, leaving her successor to pick up the mess. Centrist will say the ideological core has had little to offer to a modern German electorate, and that it is only thanks to Merkel’s skill that the party managed to remain popular for so long.
Many will point a finger at Laschet, whose ran a campaign that lacked focus, energy and a coherent message. The lackadaisical air that has followed him throughout the campaign trail was evident even on the day of the vote: as Laschet posed in front of photographers at the polling station, it was obvious he had accidentally folded his ballot the wrong way around, so that his own vote was clear for everyone to see.
After the result, many commentators will say that the CDU would have won a clear victory if it had picked as its candidate Markus Söder, the highly energetic and waspish state premier of Bavaria.
Sunday’s result in Germany’s south throws a question mark over such received wisdom: the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, on Sunday night looked on course to get 33% of the vote in the conservative stronghold, the second-worst result in its history.
As the Christian Democratic Union’s digested the result on Sunday night, eyes also turned to the result in the electoral district number 196.
The constituency, in an unspectacular part of the eastern state of Thuringia, was seen by some as one battleground that could point to the party’s future: the CDU was represented here by Hans-Georg Maaßen, the former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency who was forced to resign in 2018 after being accused of ignoring evidence of anti-immigrant riots in the east.
Maaßen sees his job to win back CDU voters who have drifted off to Alternative for Germany (AfD), mainly by co-opting their agenda. On social media channels, he has railed against Merkel’s immigration policy, “economic globalists”, and a perceived takeover of national media by leftwing activists.
The AfD sees it differently: it has hopes that Maaßen could be the door-opener to future coalitions between the large conservative bloc and the far-right upstarts. One local AfD branch, in the city of Suhl, endorsed Maaßen over its own candidate, urging its supporters to vote for “a candidate with backbone and political experience”.
On Sunday night it looked like the Maaßen experiment had failed spectacularly: not only was the SPD on course to win the seat in district number 196, the CDU rightwinger was also trailing behind the AfD in third place.
The worst-case scenario for the Christian Democrats was always that its party would descend into infighting as soon as the clock struck 6 o’clock on Sunday, and be unfit to conduct coherent coalition talks in the coming weeks.
With the eventual result as close as it is, and no emboldened rival in sight, Laschet is likely to survive. His party will do its utmost to block out the historic nature of its defeat, and fight to keep alive its dream of leading the next chancellor regardless.