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Voters Head To The Polls In Germany

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

German voters cast their votes today on whether to give Chancellor Angela Merkel a mandate for a fourth term. She's already one of the longest-serving chancellors in Germany. But there's also a strong likelihood that a right-wing nationalist party will get a lot of votes. It would be the first such party to enter the German Parliament since 1957. We go to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin for the latest.

Good morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the polls just closed. Are there any results yet?

NELSON: Very preliminary - I'm sorry - very preliminary results...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a hard word.

NELSON: ...Which are showing - sorry, tongue-tied here. Chancellor Merkel's party and her Bavarian ally are, in fact, the top vote-getters today. But, at least according to these initial results, we're talking about a third of the votes is what they got, which is a lot lower than expected and certainly less than she needs to govern without forming a coalition. And German voters will be sending this right-wing, nationalist Alternative for Germany to the Parliament. They came in a strong third, according to these initial results. And they're expected to get about 90 seats in the new Parliament.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I imagine that's a worrying sign for people who are looking at Germany and looking at the strength of these sort of nationalist parties.

NELSON: Absolutely. I mean, security was something I heard about a lot from voters that I spoke to today. Berlin voter Bernd Lauer told me it's a critical year for Germans, who've seen more than a million asylum seekers come here since 2015.

BERND LAUER: The refugee topic is very important, but also how Germany will evolve in the future in the sense of digitalization. The education is another important part of it. So I think there are a lot of topics this year around that might influence people's vote.

NELSON: Older voters that I spoke to also complained about pensions and proposals to raise the retirement age. But it really is this voter fear about mostly Muslim refugees that helped Alternative for Germany get the votes that they got. So it's really a very disturbing trend, I think, for the main parties here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. You mentioned that it doesn't seem that Angela Merkel's party have reached 51 percent. That means she's going to have to form some coalitions if she wants to become chancellor? Who will she have to form a coalition with? What does that mean?

NELSON: Well, she will have to form a coalition with one or more of the other parties that have actually won a - won the - or gotten over the 5 percent threshold in order to be in Parliament. Who exactly that will be is still sort of up in the air. It's something that will be decided in the coming weeks, possibly even months if the negotiations are tough ones. politician.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Merkel is a conservative politician by German standards. So, you know, if - will she actually make a deal with these right-wing nationalists?

NELSON: She says absolutely not. And that's the same reaction that other German political parties here have had. They reject the Alternative for Germany party over its attacks on Islam, its xenophobia and even anti-Semitism, like when one of its state leaders earlier this year called the Holocaust Memorial the memorial of shame. But that doesn't mean that this next government is going to be able to ignore the right-wing nationalists, especially if they have 90 voices in the Parliament. The party has already siphoned off a lot of Merkel's party's more conservative supporters. And the debate here in Germany about aslyum seekers really has shifted from one over inclusion in German society to one over kicking more of these asylum seekers out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin. Thank you so much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.