Polls point to a very close race between the centre-right Union bloc and the centre-left Social Democrats
The candidate for outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc said his party would do “everything we can” to form a new government, despite facing what is expected to be its worst result since 1949.
Armin Laschet said that “we can’t be satisfied with the result” predicted by exit polls, adding that “the result puts Germany, the Union, all democratic parties before big challenges”.
Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats were locked in a very close race with the Union bloc in the country’s general election on Sunday, according to exit polls. Both appeared to have around 25pc of voter support.
Mr Laschet said it was likely Germany would have its first national government made up of three parties.
He said that “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 modernises our country”.
Mr Laschet was surrounded by his party’s senior leaders, including Mrs Merkel, as he spoke at its headquarters in Berlin.
An exit poll for ARD public television put voters’ support at 25pc each for the Social Democrats — which is putting forth outgoing Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz for chancellor — and Mrs Merkel’s Union bloc.
Another exit poll for ZDF public television put the Social Democrats ahead by 26pc to 24pc.
Both put the environmentalist Greens in third place with about 15pc support.
The electoral system typically produces coalition governments but post-war Germany has never previously seen a winning party take less than the 31pc of the vote that the Union won in 1949.
That was also the centre-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 11pc to 12pc and the Left Party at 5pc.
The far-right Alternative For Germany party — which no other party wants to work with — was seen winning up to 11pc of the vote.
The general secretary of Mr Laschet’s Christian Democratic Union, Paul Ziemiak, acknowledged that his bloc had suffered “bitter losses” compared with the last election four years ago, in which it scored 32.9pc of the vote.
But he said it would be a “long election evening” and pointed to the possibility of a coalition with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats.
His Social Democrat counterpart, Lars Klingbeil, declared that his party “is back” after languishing for years in the polls and scoring only 20.5pc of the vote in 2017.
He said “with this, we have the mission to form a coalition” but he would not say which coalition partners would be approached.
Mr Scholz could also form a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats, if the exit polls hold up.
The Greens traditionally lean towards Mr Scholz’s party and the Free Democrats towards Mr Laschet’s.
Mr Scholz proclaimed the projected result a “great success”.
He said many voters had chosen his party “because they want a change of government 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.
In German elections, the party that finishes first is best placed, but not guaranteed, to provide the next chancellor.
The Social Democrats have been boosted by Mr Scholz’s relative popularity after a 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’ general secretary, Michael Kellner, said “we gained considerably, but it’s hard for me to really enjoy it”.
He noted that his party had said it preferred to work with the Social Democrats, but added that “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.
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, as she has won plaudits for steering Germany through several major crises.
Her successor will have to oversee the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany has so far weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programmes.