BERLIN (AP) – Germany’s center – left Social Democrats were locked in a very close race on Sunday with the outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center – right bloc heading towards the worst result ever in the country’s parliamentary elections, projected.
Top officials from both sides said they hoped to lead Germany’s next government and get their candidates to succeed Merkel, who has been in power since 2005.
Projections from ARD’s 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 Chancellor Olaf Scholz and 24.5% for Merkel’s Union bloc under future successor Armin Laschet , governor of Germany’s most populous state.
Separate projections for ZDF’s public television were led by the Social Democrats by 25.7% to 24.6%. Both placed environmentalists Green in third place with about 14% support.
These results would be the worst for the EU bloc in Germany after World War II.
The electoral system typically produces coalition governments, but post-war Germany has never before seen a winning party take less than the 31% of the votes the Union won in 1949. It was also the center-right bloc’s worst result to date.
Given the predictions, putting together the next coalition government for Europe’s largest economy can be a long and complicated process of negotiation. In Germany, the party that ends first is best placed, but not guaranteed, to give the next chancellor. Merkel will remain as deputy leader until the parties find a new coalition among themselves and a new government is in place.
The projections on Sunday also put support for the business-friendly Free Democrats at around 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, slightly down 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 not be happy with the result,” as the exit polls predicted, since the EU bloc took 32.9% of the vote four years ago.
“The result puts Germany, the Union, all democratic parties in front of great challenges,” he said. “We will do everything we can to form a government under the leadership of the Union, because Germany now needs a coalition for the future that modernizes our country.”
aLaschet’s most likely path to power is a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats.
The Social Democrats, meanwhile, celebrated a comeback after voting only 20.5% in 2017 and falling far below that in recent years. Their general secretary, Lars Klingbeil, said “with this we have the mission to form a coalition.” He would not say which coalition partners would be contacted.
The Social Democrat Scholz could also form a coalition with the Green and Free Democrats if the expected results hold. The Greens traditionally lean towards Scholz’s party and the Free Democrats towards Laschets.
Scholz declared the expected result a “great success.” He said many voters chose his party “because they want a change of government and because they want this country’s next chancellor to be Olaf Scholz.”
“Now we are waiting for the final election result, but then we go to work,” he told jubilant supporters in Berlin.
The Social Democrats have been amplified by Scholz’s relative popularity after their long vote in the poll and by his rivals’ troubled campaigns. The Greens’ very first candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, suffered from early gaffes and Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, struggled to motivate her party’s traditional base.
The Greens saw their support increase markedly, but had hoped for more.
“We got significantly, but it’s hard for me to really enjoy it,” said Greens general secretary Michael Kellner. He noted that his party has said it would prefer to work with the Social Democrats, but added, “We are ready to talk to all Democratic parties to see what is possible.”
The leader of the Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, said “the probability that we can implement our program is higher” in a coalition with the EU bloc, but did not rule out other alliances.
Another possible combination of governing would be a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” between Germany’s traditional major parties, the EU bloc and the Social Democrats, under which of Scholz or Laschet ends up leading. But none of the rivals are likely to have much appetite for it after forming an often tense alliance for 12 of Merkel’s 16 years in power.
About 60.4 million people in the EU nation of 83 million were eligible the new Bundestag, or the lower house of parliament, which elects the next head of government.
Merkel, who has won praise for govern Germany through several major crises, it will not be an easy leader to follow. Her successor will have to oversee the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany has so far weathered relatively well thanks to major rescue programs.
Laschet insists there should be no tax increases as Germany pulls out of the pandemic. Scholz and Baerbock favor tax increases for the richest Germans and also support an increase in the minimum wage.
Germany’s leading parties have significant differences in their proposals for tackling climate change. The Laschets Union bloc is pinning its hopes on technological solutions and a market-driven approach, while the Greens want to raise carbon prices and end coal use earlier than planned. Scholz has stressed the need to protect jobs as Germany shifts to greener energy.
Foreign policy did not have much to do with the campaign, although the Greens are in favor of a tougher stance on China and Russia.
In two regional elections also held on Sunday, Berlin may have its first green mayor, a post the Social Democrats have held for two decades, and the Social Democrats were set for a strong victory in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.
Frank Jordans, Kirsten Grieshaber and Karin Laub contributed to this report.
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