Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats took a razor-thin lead on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in the vote to decide her successor, preliminary results showed, sparking immediate claims from both sides to form the country’s next government.
The election ushers in the end of 16 years in power for Mrs Merkel, and also thrusts Germany, a byword for stability, into a new period of political uncertainty.
With the conservative CDU-CSU alliance and the SPD each seeking to form governing coalitions in a race for power, Germany was up for a rocky few months that could blunt it on the international stage for some time.
Preliminary results published on public television showed Finance Minister Olaf Scholz’s SPD with around 25.5 to 25.9 percent of the vote, followed closely behind by Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their candidate Armin Laschet on about 24.5 percent.
With the race in dead-heat in what is one of the most unpredictable elections in decades for Europe’s biggest economy, the SPD swiftly staked its claim with general secretary Lars Klingbeil saying his party ‘clearly has the mandate to govern’.
‘It’s going to be a long election night, that’s for sure,’ Mr Scholz said.
‘But this is certain: that many citizens have put their crosses next to the SPD because they want there to be a change in government and also because they want the next chancellor to be called Olaf Scholz.’
With the conservatives staring down the barrel of their worst result since World War II, CDU secretary Paul Ziemiak admitted that the ‘losses are bitter compared to the last election’ in 2017, when the CDU-CSU notched up 33 percent.
But Mr Laschet, 60, warned that the jury was still out on which party triumphed, as he said that he would ‘do everything we can to build a government led by the (conservative) Union’.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (third from right) appears at the CDU party headquarters after first exit polls for the general election showed her party in a close battle with the centre-left Social Democrats
CDU leader and Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet on stage at the party headquarters after the exit polls were broadcast
Germany has headed for the polls in one of the most unpredictable elections in recent times, as the EU’s biggest economy prepares for life after Angela Merkel
The conservatives and centre-left Social Democrats are in a tight race for the crown which Merkel will be handing over (pictured today)
The SPD, Germany’s oldest party, was polling so badly just a few months back that many had written off the possibility that it may even be in the next government.
But Mr Scholz, 63, a colourless but competent former mayor of Hamburg, now stands a chance of becoming the first SPD chancellor since Gerhard Schroeder, who lost to Mrs Merkel in a close contest in 2005.
The conservatives meanwhile were headed for their worst post-war score even though their candidate Mr Laschet went into the race in the summer as the clear favourite to grab the top job in Europe’s biggest economy.
His popularity began to wane after a series of blunders over the summer, including being caught on camera laughing in the background during a tribute to the victims of devastating floods in Germany.
In the meantime, Mr Scholz, who at the start of the year had looked down and out in the race, saw his ratings begin to rise as he avoided making such embarrassing mistakes.
On voting day itself, Mr Laschet committed another blunder by folding his ballot with his choices visible rather than hidden – he cast both his votes for the CDU.
The faux-pas before live cameras sparked a Twitter storm, with some calling it an ‘own goal’ for Mr Laschet, although the chief of the electoral commission Georg Thiel said the ballot was still valid.
With polls predicting a devastating defeat for Mr Laschet, the conservatives trotted out their biggest asset – Mrs Merkel.
Although she had originally planned to keep a low profile in the campaign, she found herself dragged into Mr Laschet’s frantic tour across the country to canvass for last votes – something that has helped the CDU-CSU to stem a drop in popularity in the last days of the campaign.
The electoral system typically produces coalition governments but post-war Germany has never previously seen a winning party take less than the 31% of the vote that the Union won in 1949. That was also the center-right bloc’s worst result until now.
Given the exit poll predictions, putting together the next coalition government for Europe’s biggest economy could be a lengthy and complicated process.
Mrs Merkel will remain as a caretaker leader until a new government is in place.
The exit polls also put support for the business-friendly Free Democrats at 11% to 12% and the Left Party at 5%.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party – which no other party wants to work with – was seen winning up to 11% of the vote, exit polls showed.
With 40 per cent of the electorate casting their ballot by post – including Mrs Merkel herself, trends of first estimates could well change when the postal votes are taken into account once the count begins.
Postal voting is not included in exit polls as they are conducted via surveys on people leaving polling stations across Germany.
Surrounded by Mrs Merkel and his party’s top brass, Mr Laschet said the party ‘can’t be satisfied with the result’ predicted by the exit polls.
The Union took 32.9% of the vote four years ago. He said ‘the result puts Germany, the Union, all democratic parties, before big challenges’.
He added: ‘We will do everything we can to form a government under the Union’s leadership, because Germany now needs a coalition for the future that modernizes our country.’
Mr Laschet’s likeliest route to power is a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats.
The Social Democrats, meanwhile, celebrated a comeback after polling only 20.5% in 2017 and slipping well below that in recent years.
Their general secretary, Lars Klingbeil, said: ‘With this, we have the mission to form a coalition.’
He wouldn’t say which coalition partners would be approached.
Mr Scholz of the Social Democrats could also form a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats, if the projected results hold up.
The Greens traditionally lean toward Mr Scholz’s party and the Free Democrats toward Mr Laschet’s.
Mr Scholz proclaimed the projected result a ‘great success’.
He said many voters chose his party ‘because they want a change of goverment and because they want this country’s next chancellor to be Olaf Scholz’.
‘Now we will wait for the final election result, but then we will get to work,’ he told cheering supporters in Berlin.
Armin Laschet (pictured with his wife Susanne), 60, of the CDU-CSU, voted in his home town of Aachen today
Scholz, who at the start of the year had looked down and out in the race, saw his ratings rise recently
The Social Democrats have been boosted by Mr Scholz’s relative popularity after their long poll slump, and by his rivals’ troubled campaigns.
The Greens’ first candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, suffered from early gaffes and Mr Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, struggled to motivate his party’s traditional base.
The Greens saw their support substantially increase, but had hoped for more.
‘We gained considerably, but it’s hard for me to really enjoy it,’ said Greens general secretary, Michael Kellner.
He noted that his party has said it prefers to work with the Social Democrats, but added ‘we are ready to speak with all democratic parties to see what’s possible.’
Another possible governing combination would be a repeat of the outgoing ‘grand coalition’ of Germany’s traditional big parties, the Union and Social Democrats, under whichever of Mr Scholz or Mr Laschet finishes ahead.
But neither of the rivals is likely to have much appetite for that after forming an often-tense alliance for 12 of Mrs Merkel’s 16 years in power.
Chancellor Angela Merkel will be stepping down after 16 years in power. Today’s national vote will determine who replaces her
Mr Laschet is hoping to succeed Chancellor Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy
About 60.4 million people in the nation of 83 million were eligible to elect the new Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, which will elect the next head of government.
Mrs Merkel will not be an easy leader to follow, for she has won plaudits for steering Germany through several major crises.
Her successor will have to lead the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany so far has weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programmes.
Mr Laschet insisted there should be no tax increases as Germany pulled out of the pandemic.
Mr Scholz and Ms Baerbock favour tax hikes for the richest Germans, and also back an increase in the minimum wage.
Germany’s leading parties have significant differences in their proposals for tackling climate change.
Mr Laschet’s Union bloc is pinning its hopes on technological solutions and a market-driven approach, while the Greens want to ramp up carbon prices and end the use of coal earlier than planned.
Mr Scholz has emphasized the need to protect jobs as Germany transitions to greener energy.
Foreign policy has not featured much in the campaign, although the Greens favour a tougher stance towards China and Russia.
In two regional elections that were also held Sunday, Berlin looked set to get its first Green mayor, a post the Social Democrats have held for two decades.
The Greens were forecast to receive 23.5% of the vote, an increase of more than 8%. The Social Democrats looked to hold their share of 21.5% and the center-right Christian Democrats were predicted to come third with 15%.
In a second regional election, the Social Democrats were set for a strong win in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania with 37% of the vote, ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany with 18.5%.
Nico Siegel, head of the Infratest Dimap polling company which conducted the exit poll alongside ARD, said ‘we will certainly see some surprises on Sunday,’ as he spoke ahead of the results.
Despite the SPD’s lead in the polls, a victory for the conservatives ‘can’t be ruled out’, he said. ‘The race for first place is wide open.’
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was among the early voters on Sunday, declaring that ‘to vote is to live democracy’ as he cast his ballot in Berlin.
At a polling station in Aachen, voter Ursula Becker, 62, told AFP: ‘This year it’s quite exciting who it will be, and it’s always important who governs.’
In Berlin, Hagen Bartels, 64, said he was expecting ‘the surprise that the biggest party is not the SPD but probably the CDU’.
With both parties likely to fall well short of the majority needed to govern alone, there could be weeks or even months of fraught coalition negotiations.
After Germany’s last election in September 2017, it was February before the CDU-CSU formed a coalition with the SPD.
Along with social justice, climate change has been one of the top concerns among voters in the run-up to the election.
In Aachen, first-time voter Maite Hoppenz, 18, told AFP that climate change was ‘definitely a big topic for me because I think it will certainly have a big impact on my future’.
The conservatives and centre-left Social Democrats are in a tight race for the crown which Merkel will be handing over after a mammoth 16 years in power
Benedikt Ruedesheim, 33, said he would have liked to see ‘a bit more clarity about who is planning what’ on climate change as he cast his vote in Berlin.
The Green party enjoyed a surge in support earlier this year after naming 40-year-old Ms Baerbock as its chancellor candidate, at one point even briefly taking the lead as the most popular party.
But after a series of missteps by Ms Baerbock, including a plagiarism scandal, the Greens went into the elction polling well behind the two leading parties on around 17 percent.
While the chancellery may be out of reach for the party, it will likely have a role in Germany’s next government.
All bets are off on the composition of the next coalition, as the SPD and the conservatives could each try to cobble together a ruling majority if there is little to divide their score.
On the eve of the polls, Mr Scholz voiced his preference for a partnership with the Greens, calling on voters to give him the score needed to go with a two-way coalition.
Mr Laschet has signalled he could still try to form a coalition even if the CDU-CSU do not come first, most likely calling on the Greens and the liberal FDP for support.
But coming second would be a devastating blow for the party, which has dominated German politics since World War II and has never won less than 30 percent of the vote in federal elections.