BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s center-left Social Democrats were locked in a very close race Sunday with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right bloc, which was heading toward its worst-ever result in the country’s parliamentary election, projections showed.
Top officials from both parties said they hope to lead Germany’s next government and have their candidates succeed Merkel, who has been in power since 2005.
Projections from ARD public television, based on exit polls and early counting, put voters’ support at 25.5% for the Social Democrats, whose candidate for chancellor is outgoing Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and 24.5% for Merkel’s Union bloc under would-be successor Armin Laschet, governor of Germany’s most populous state.
Separate projections for ZDF public television had the Social Democrats ahead by 25.7% to 24.6%. Both put the environmentalist Greens in third place with about 14% support.
Those results would be the worst for the Union bloc in post-World War II Germany.
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 predictions, putting together the next coalition government for Europe’s biggest economy could be a lengthy and complicated haggling process. In Germany, the party that finishes first is best-placed, but not guaranteed, to provide the next chancellor. Merkel will remain as a caretaker leader until the parties sort out a new coalition among themselves and a new government is in place.
The projections Sunday also put support for the business-friendly Free Democrats at about 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 around 11% of the vote, down slightly from the 12.6% it won in 2017, when it first entered parliament.
Surrounded by Merkel and his party’s top brass, Laschet said “we can’t be satisfied with the result” predicted by the exit polls, since the Union bloc took 32.9% of the vote four years ago.
“The result puts Germany, the Union, all democratic parties, before big challenges,” he said. “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.”
aLaschet’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.
Social Democrat Scholz could also form a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats, if the projected results hold up. The Greens traditionally lean toward Scholz’s party and the Free Democrats toward Laschet’s.
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.
The Social Democrats have been boosted by Scholz’s relative popularity after their long poll slump, and by his rivals’ troubled campaigns. The Greens’ first-ever candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, suffered from early gaffes and 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 the 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.”
The Free Democrats’ leader, Christian Lindner, said “the likelihood that we can implement our program is higher” in a coalition with the Union bloc, but didn’t rule out other alliances.
Another possible governing combination would be a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of Germany’s traditional big parties, the Union bloc and the Social Democrats, under whichever of Scholz or 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 Merkel’s 16 years in power.
About 60.4 million people in the European Union nation of 83 million were eligible to elect the new Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, which will elect the next head of government.
Merkel, who has won plaudits for steering Germany through several major crises, won’t be an easy leader to follow. Her successor will have to oversee the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany so far has weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programs.
Laschet insists there should be no tax increases as Germany pulls out of the pandemic. Scholz and Baerbock favor 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. 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. Scholz has emphasized the need to protect jobs as Germany transitions to greener energy.
Foreign policy did not feature much in the campaign, although the Greens favor a tougher stance toward China and Russia.
In two regional elections that were also held Sunday, Berlin may get its first Green mayor, a post the Social Democrats have held for two decades, and the Social Democrats were set for a strong win in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania.
Frank Jordans, Kirsten Grieshaber and Karin Laub contributed to this report.