I suspect many readers have had the experience of reading a newspaper account of some event and wondering whether the reporter could possibly have been at the same event as they were.

That’s been my feeling today on reading the reports of Sunday’s German election. Most of the media coverage has put a negative spin on Angela Merkel’s result: “A hollow victory” (BBC), “Disappointing victory” (Deutsche Welle), “Merkel’s stumble” (Washington Post). So I thought it’s worth trying to quickly explain why I described it, on the contrary, as “a remarkable achievement.”

It’s true, as we’ve been repeatedly told, that the Christian Democrats (CDU) with 33.0% have scored their lowest percentage of the vote since their very first election, in 1949. But it’s equally true, and even more striking, that the opposing Social Democrats (SPD), on 20.5%, have fallen to a level not seen in a century and a quarter. (Official results are here; they differ, as expected, only slightly from those reported yesterday.)

Neither statistic in isolation tells you a great deal. What matters is the total situation. And, as is normal in countries with proportional representation and moderately reliable opinion polling, most of the key features of that were clear before the polls opened.

We knew, with a high degree of probability, that about a fifth of the vote (and the seats – since no significant party fell below the threshold, the two are closely aligned) would go to the parties of the extreme right or left. In fact the number was 21.8% (12.6% for Alternative for Germany (AfD), 9.2% for the Left), towards the high end of expectations, but no great surprise.

So assuming that neither of those parties was going to be invited into a coalition (more about this in a moment), that meant that a parliamentary majority was going to require either the two major parties (CDU and SPD) to combine again, or one of them to do well enough to have a majority in combination with either or both of the smaller mainstream parties, the Liberals (FDP) and the Greens.

Given the votes tied up on the extremes, a CDU/FDP majority (as in 2009) or an SPD/Greens majority (as in 2002) was always a long shot. More realistically, CDU and SPD each hoped to get into a position where they could bring in both FDP and Greens to form government.

On the polling as it was six months ago, each of them seemed within striking distance of doing that. But by Sunday, the SPD’s hopes had evaporated and the CDU’s success was a foregone conclusion. That is Merkel’s achievement.

In one respect the dynamics were not quite as symmetrical as I’ve just painted them. The grand coalition was not hurting the CDU, but it was clearly hurting the SPD. So while Merkel could keep her options open (and indeed is still doing so), it was always likely that the SPD would decline to sign up for another term as junior partner.

In theory, the SPD had another option that Merkel lacked: it could move to take in the Left as a partner, as it has done on a couple of occasions at state level (whereas no-one has tried to co-operate with AfD). But that was really no help; if SPD/Greens/Left were going to win a majority, then SPD/Greens/FDP would almost certainly have one as well, and the latter would be more stable and less divisive. Just failing to rule out the possibility seems to have hurt the SPD.

In fact, these other combinations all fell well short. SPD/Greens has 220 of the 709 seats; SPD/Greens/Left has 289; SPD/Greens/FDP has 300; CDU/FDP has 326. If the grand coalition is to end, then the only possible combination to replace it – as has been pretty clear for the last month – is the CDU in partnership with both FDP and Greens.

Which, given her lean towards more liberal positions over the last term, has probably been Merkel’s preferred outcome all along. Of course she would like to be going into it with a larger total of seats, and (like everyone) she would prefer that the AfD bloc was not so substantial. (Although it is already fracturing, as I had anticipated.)

Nonetheless, in the circumstances the important thing was maintaining, or rather regaining, a big lead over the SPD, and that she did.

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