German Social Democrat Olaf Scholz vowed on Monday to strengthen the European Union and keep up the transatlantic partnership in a three-way coalition government he hopes to form by Christmas to take over from Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) came first in Sunday’s national parliamentary election, just ahead of the conservatives, and aim to lead a government for the first time since 2005 in a coalition with the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Scholz, 63, projected a sense of calm assurance when asked whether the close election result and the prospect of prolonged coalition negotiations sent a message of instability in Germany to its European partners.

“Germany always has coalition governments and it was always stable,” he said in fluent English, standing beside a statue of Willy Brandt, a Cold War-era SPD chancellor awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for fostering dialogue between East and West.

Merkel’s party narrowly defeated

The centre-left SPD won the biggest share of the vote in Sunday’s election, narrowly beating outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc in a closely fought race that will determine who succeeds the longtime leader at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy.

Despite getting its worst-ever result in a federal contest, the Union bloc said it, too, would reach out to smaller parties to discuss forming a government, while Merkel stays on in a caretaker role until a successor is sworn in.

Election officials said early Monday that a count of all 299 constituencies showed the Social Democrats received 25.9 per cent of the vote, ahead of 24.1 per cent for the Union bloc. No winning party in a German national election had previously taken less than 31 per cent of the vote.

Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state who outmanoeuvred a more popular rival to secure the nomination of Merkel’s Union bloc, had struggled to motivate the party’s base and suffered a series of missteps.

Olaf Scholz, leader of the Social Democrats, waves to supporters in Berlin on Sunday. (Britta Pedersen/dpa/The Associated Press)

“Of course, this is a loss of votes that isn’t pretty,” Laschet said of results that looked set to undercut by some measure the Union’s previous worst showing of 31 per cent in 1949. But he added that with Merkel departing after 16 years in power, “no one had an incumbent bonus in this election.”

Laschet told supporters 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 modernizes our country.”

Rivals to court smaller parties

Both Laschet and Scholz will be courting the same two parties: the environmentalist Greens, who were third with 14.8 per cent, and the pro-business Free Democrats, who took 11.5 per cent of the vote.

The Greens traditionally lean toward the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats toward the Union, but neither ruled out going the other way.

The other option was a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the Union and Social Democrats that has run Germany for 12 of Merkel’s 16 years in power, but there was little obvious appetite for that after years of government squabbling.

“Everyone thinks that … this ‘grand coalition’ isn’t promising for the future, regardless of who is No. 1 and No. 2,” Laschet said. “We need a real new beginning.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and candidate Armin Laschet speak to fellow Christian Democratic Union party members in Berlin on Sunday. (Martin Meissner/The Associated Press)

The Free Democrats’ leader, Christian Lindner, appeared keen to govern, suggesting that his party and the Greens should make the first move.

“About 75 per cent of Germans didn’t vote for the next chancellor’s party,” Lindner said in a post-election debate with all parties’ leaders on public broadcaster ZDF.

“So it might be advisable … that the Greens and Free Democrats first speak to each other to structure everything that follows.”

Green Party candidate Annalena Baerbock insisted that “the climate crisis … is the leading issue of the next government, and that is for us the basis for any talks … even if we aren’t totally satisfied with our result.”

PHOTOS | Party supporters react as Germany votes in parliamentary election: 

While the Greens improved their support from the last election in 2017, they had higher expectations for Sunday’s vote.

The Left Party was projected to win only 4.9 per cent of the vote and risked being kicked out of parliament entirely. The far-right Alternative for Germany — which no one else wants to work with — received 10.3 per cent. This was about two percentage points less than in 2017, when it first entered parliament.

Due to Germany’s complicated electoral system, a full breakdown of the result by seats in parliament was still pending.

WATCH | Coalition government likely following elections in Germany: 

Coalition government likely as Germany votes for post-Merkel parliament

Voters in Germany have elected its first parliament without Angela Merkel, who stepped down after 16 years. After early results show a close race, negotiations for a coalition are expected to start soon. 2:16

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.

Germany’s leading parties have significant differences when it comes to taxation and tackling climate change.

Foreign policy didn’t feature much in the campaign, although the Greens favour a tougher stance toward China and Russia.

‘Germany will be stable’

Whichever parties form the next German government, the Free Democrats’ Lindner said it was “good news” that it would have a majority with centrist parties.

“All of those in Europe and beyond who were worried about Germany’s stability can now see: Germany will be stable in any case,” he said.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez sent early congratulations to Scholz.

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

“Spain and Germany will continue to work together for a stronger Europe and for a fair and green recovery that leaves no one behind,” he wrote on Twitter.

In two regional elections also held Sunday, the Social Democrats looked set to defend the post of Berlin mayor that they have held for two decades. The party was also on course for a strong win in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania.

For the first time since 1949, the Danish minority party SSW was set to win a seat in parliament, officials said.

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