BERLIN (AP) – Germany’s center-left Social Democrats found themselves in a very close race on Sunday with the center-right bloc of outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who were heading for their worst result in the country’s parliamentary elections , according to projections.
Senior officials from both parties have said they hope to lead Germany’s next government and see their candidates succeed Merkel, who has been in power since 2005.
Public television ARD’s projections, based on exit polls and early counting, put voter support at 25.5% for the Social Democrats, whose chancellor candidate is the outgoing vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz, and 24.5% for Merkel’s Union bloc under potential successor Armin Laschet, governor of Germany’s most populous state.
Separate screenings for public television ZDF had the Social Democrats ahead of 25.7% to 24.6%. Both put the Greens environmentalists in third place with around 14% support.
These results would be the worst for the Union bloc in post-war Germany.
The electoral system usually produces coalition governments, but post-war Germany never saw a winning party win less than the Union’s 31% of the vote in 1949. It was also the worst result. of the center-right block so far.
Given the forecasts, building the next coalition government for Europe’s largest economy could be a long and complicated bargaining process. In Germany, the party that finishes first is in the best position, but not guaranteed, to provide the next chancellor. Merkel will remain interim leader until the parties find a new coalition among themselves and a new government is in place.
Sunday’s projections also place 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 – won around 11% of the vote, down slightly from the 12.6% it won in 2017, when it was elected. entry into parliament for the first time.
Surrounded by Merkel and the high ranking officers of his party, Laschet declared “we cannot be satisfied with the result” predicted by the exit polls, since the Union bloc had obtained 32.9% of the vote. four years ago.
“The result places Germany, the Union, all the democratic parties, in front of great challenges”, he declared. “We will do all we can to form a government under the leadership of the Union, because now Germany needs a coalition of the future that modernizes our country.”
Alaschet’s most likely path to power is a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats.
The Social Democrats, for their part, celebrated their comeback after voting just 20.5% in 2017 and slipping well below in recent years. Their secretary general, Lars Klingbeil, said “with this we have the mission to form a coalition”. He would not say which coalition partners would be approached.
Social Democrat Scholz could also form a coalition with Greens and Liberal Democrats, if the projected results hold. The Greens traditionally lean towards the party of Scholz and the Free Democrats towards that of Laschet.
Scholz proclaimed that the intended outcome was a “great success”. He said many voters chose his party “because they want a change of government and because they want the next chancellor of this country to be Olaf Scholz”.
“Now we will wait for the final result of the elections, but then we will get to work,” he told Berlin supporters.
The Social Democrats were boosted by the relative popularity of Scholz after their long electoral crisis and by the troubled campaigns of his rivals. The Greens’ first candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, suffered from early blunders 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 significantly, but had hoped for more.
“We have won a lot, but it is difficult for me to really take advantage of it,” said Greens secretary general Michael Kellner. He noted that his party had said it preferred to work with the Social Democrats, but added “we are ready to speak with all Democratic parties to see what is possible”.
Free Democrat leader Christian Lindner said “the likelihood that we can implement our agenda is higher” in a coalition with the Union bloc, but has not ruled out other alliances.
Another possible government combination would be a repetition of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the great traditional German parties, the Union bloc and the Social Democrats, under that of Scholz or Laschet who finished ahead. But none of the rivals are likely to have much of an appetite for it after forming an often strained 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 received praise for guiding Germany through several major crises, will not be an easy leader to follow. His successor will have to oversee the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany has so far resisted relatively well thanks to extensive rescue programs.
Laschet insists there should be no tax increases as Germany pulls out of the pandemic. Scholz and Baerbock are in favor of tax increases for the wealthiest Germans, and also support an increase in the minimum wage.
The main German parties have significant differences in their proposals for tackling climate change. The Laschet Union bloc is pinning its hopes on technological solutions and a market-oriented approach, while the Greens want to raise carbon prices and end the use of coal sooner than expected. Scholz stressed the need to protect jobs as Germany shifts to greener energy.
Foreign policy did not feature much in the campaign, although the Greens favor a tougher stance on China and Russia.
In two regional elections which were also held on Sunday, Berlin could secure its first green mayor, a post the Social Democrats have held for two decades, and the Social Democrats were poised for a solid victory in the northern state. east of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
Frank Jordans, Kirsten Grieshaber and Karin Laub contributed to this report.
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