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German governing coalition stunned by European election results

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The German government is licking its wounds after a poor performance in European elections. Meanwhile, the country's far right is celebrating because it came in ahead of all three governing parties. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has, so far, ignored demands to call a vote of confidence. But his party and his coalition partners are asking what went wrong. Esme Nicholson reports from Berlin.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: This week Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats suffered their worst-ever election result. The humiliation was plain to see on SPD leader Lars Klingbeil's face as he spoke alongside other party leaders on German television.

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LARS KLINGBEIL: (Through interpreter) These election results have forced many people to wake up to the fact that the Nazis are mobilizing.

NICHOLSON: Alice Weidel, co-chair of the Alternative for Germany Party, or AfD, objected to the Nazi reference even though the party's lead candidate recently claimed that not all SS officers had been criminals and even though AfD members attended a conference where plans were floated to remigrate - in other words, expel - so-called unintegrated immigrants, including German citizens.

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ALICE WEIDEL: (Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking German).

NICHOLSON: But little could spoil her triumphant mood after the AfD got the highest electoral result of any far-right party in Germany since the end of World War II.

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WEIDEL: (Through interpreter) Despite months of defamation and slander campaigns pitted against us by the media, politicians and the Secret Service, the voters have to put the AfD in second place in Germany and first place in Eastern Germany.

NICHOLSON: Winning just shy of 16%, the AfD made gains with a campaign that promised to stop immigration, stop sending aid to Ukraine and stop climate policies dictating how ordinary Germans live their lives. While the opposition Christian Democrats, previously headed by Angela Merkel, took first place with 30% of the vote, it's the fact that the AfD came in second that has rattled Scholz's coalition. Co-governing Green leader Omid Nouripour suggested there was another winner here - Russia.

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OMID NOURIPOUR: (Through interpreter) It's frightening to see how many votes the AfD got despite revelations about their remigration plans, espionage and corruption. This party is the extended arm of the Kremlin, which sows hatred and endangers our prosperity, democracy and freedom with its anti-European policies.

NICHOLSON: The Greens did particularly poorly, dropping nine points from five years ago, when the climate crisis was at the forefront of voters' minds. But a pandemic, a war on European soil and inflation fueled by the ensuing energy crisis have shifted the electorates' priorities. Sandra Hirsch, a 57-year-old nurse in Berlin, says the Greens are out of touch.

SANDRA HIRSCH: (Through interpreter) Most voters are concerned about climate change, but voting Green is a luxury. The party simply doesn't understand the average family's struggles and needs.

NICHOLSON: Reconnecting with disaffected voters is imperative for Scholz's government ahead of federal elections next year, warns Yosef Janning from the German Council on Foreign Relations.

YOSEF JANNING: There is a disconnect between the ruling political class and many people in the country.

NICHOLSON: Janning says that while Scholz is unlikely to follow in French President Emmanuel Macron's footsteps and initiate a snap election, both leaders face similar challenges.

JANNING: It's France and Germany that are creating instability because both countries will be inward-looking over the next years, so if it comes to potential leadership coalitions in the EU, forget about Germany and France.

NICHOLSON: While these elections were about the European Union, the results have forced leaders in the EU's biggest, most influential countries to deal with domestic discontent in a way that could well complicate their work together in Brussels. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Esme Nicholson
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