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German election exit polls show virtual tie in race to succeed Merkel

German election updates

Germany’s election failed to produce a clear winner, with first projections putting the centre-right CDU/CSU and the left-of-centre Social Democrats neck and neck in the race to form the country’s first post-Merkel government.

Olaf Scholz, chancellor-candidate for the SPD, and Armin Laschet, his CDU/CSU rival, both claimed the right to form a government and succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.

The exceptionally close result suggests it could take time to determine who will govern Germany in the post-Merkel era with difficult coalition negotiations — involving a number of different parties — lying ahead.

“We will do everything we can to form a government under the leadership of the CDU/CSU,” Laschet told cheering supporters at the party’s headquarters in Berlin.

But moments later Scholz addressed Social Democrats with the same message. “A lot of people put their cross by the SPD because they wanted a change of government and wanted the next chancellor of this country to be Olaf Scholz,” he said.

A projection by public broadcaster ZDF put the SPD on 25.7 per cent, the CDU/CSU at 24.6 per cent, the Greens on 14.4 per cent and the liberal Free Democrats on 11.7 per cent.

However, projections by the broadcaster ARD suggested an even closer result, with the SPD on 24.9 per cent, the CDU/CSU on 24.7 per cent, the Greens on 14.6 per cent and the FDP on 11.7 per cent.

The preliminary results suggest Germany is set for a three-way coalition, the first in its recent history. Much depends on whether the smaller parties, the Greens and FDP, decide to team up with the CDU/CSU or the SPD.

Christian Lindner, leader of the FDP, said he saw his party had “more in common, in policy terms” with the CDU/CSU and the Greens.

Talks on a coalition will entail weeks and possibly months of wrangling as the parties try to overcome their many differences and stitch together a viable government.

“We are still in a phase of three-dimensional chess . . . It’s impossible to tell where this evening is going. There are even more possibilities than had widely been anticipated just a few days earlier,” said Christian Martin, a political scientist at the University of Kiel.

Sunday’s Bundestag election was the first in Germany’s postwar history when an incumbent chancellor was not standing for re-election, a factor that made the race one of the most volatile and unpredictable in living memory. The SPD, CDU/CSU and Greens have seen ten-point swings in their poll ratings since the start of the year.

“It was clear to us that without the benefit of incumbency it will be an open, hard and close election campaign, and that’s what happened,” said Laschet. “It is an exceptional situation.”

Merkel’s departure from power meant the millions of voters who had voted for her in past elections but had no strong allegiance to the CDU/CSU were up for grabs. That explained the huge drop in the party’s support: the party garnered 32.9 per cent in the 2017 election and is now at around 25 per cent.

The Social Democrats had led opinion polls in the last two weeks of campaigning, but in recent days the CDU/CSU succeeded in eating away at their lead. Laschet warned repeatedly that a vote for the SPD would pave the way for a leftwing coalition between the Social Democrats, Greens and Die Linke, a hard-left party that wants to disband Nato.

Laschet was also given a helping hand by Merkel, who still has soaring approval ratings after 16 years in power.

The chancellor had previously said she would keep her campaign appearances to a minimum but changed her mind as the CDU/CSU’s poll numbers slumped. Pollsters said her stump speeches over the last week or so considerably helped Laschet.

Green chancellor-candidate Annalena Baerbock stressed that her party had won its “best ever result” in a parliamentary election. But she made it clear the party was disappointed at not having reached the 18-20 per cent it had been striving for.

“We wanted more, but we didn’t achieve it, partly because of our own mistakes at the beginning of the campaign — my own mistakes,” she told supporters. “But we stand here tonight and say: This time it wasn’t enough, but we have a mission for the future.”

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Berlin and Olaf Storbeck in Frankfurt

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