Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats were locked in a very close race on Sunday with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right bloc, which is 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 for ARD public television, based on exit polls and early counting, put voters’ support at 24.9 per cent for the Social Democrats — which is putting forth outgoing Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz for chancellor — and 24.7 per cent for Merkel’s Union bloc under would-be successor state governor Armin Laschet.

Separate projections for ZDF public television put the Social Democrats ahead by 25.6 per cent to 24.4 per cent. Both put the environmentalist Greens in third place with about 15 per cent support.

Those results would be the worst for the Union bloc in post-Second World War Germany.

People line up to vote outside a polling station in Friedrichshain, Germany, on Sunday. (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP)

The electoral system typically produces coalition governments, but post-war Germany has never previously seen a winning party take less than the 31 per cent 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.

Merkel will remain as a caretaker leader until a new government is in place. In German elections, the party that finishes first is best placed, but not guaranteed, to provide the next chancellor.

The projections also put support for the business-friendly Free Democrats at about 11 per cent and the Left Party at five per cent. The far-right Alternative for Germany party — which no other party wants to work with — was seen winning about 11 per cent of the vote.

Rivals vow to form separate coalitions

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 per cent 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.”

Laschet’s likeliest route to power is a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats.

Merkel and candidate Armin Laschet speak to fellow Christian Democratic Union party members in Berlin on Sunday. (Peter Kneffel/dpa/The Associated Press)

The Social Democrats, meanwhile, celebrated a comeback after polling only 20.5 per cent 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 government and because they want this country’s next chancellor to be Olaf Scholz.”

SDP Leader Olaf Scholz waves to supporters in in Berlin on Sunday. (Britta Pedersen/dpa/The Associated Press)

“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.

Members and supporters of the Green Party react in Berlin on Sunday. (Matthias Schrader/The Associated Press)

“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.

Taxes, climate change key election issues

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 favour tax hikes for the richest Germans, and also back an increase in the minimum wage.

Election workers prepare to count absentee ballots in Munich on Sunday. (Sven Hoppe/dpa/The Associated Press)

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 favour 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.

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