Germany's SPD takes narrow lead in post-Merkel election

Germany's SPD takes narrow lead in post-Merkel election

The SPD, Germany's oldest party, was polling badly just a few months back

German Finance Minister, Vice-Chancellor and the Social Democrats (SPD) candidate for Chancellor Olaf Scholz waves on stage at the Social Democrats (SPD) headquarters after the estimates were broadcast on TV in Berlin on September 26, 2021 after the German general elections. Credit: AFP Photo

Germany's centre-left Social Democrats took a razor-thin lead on Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in Sunday's vote to decide her successor, preliminary results showed, sparking immediate claims from both sides to form the country's next government.

The epochal election ushers in the end of 16 years in power for Merkel, and also thrusts Germany, a byword for stability, into a new period of political uncertainty.

With the conservative CDU-CSU alliance and the SPD each seeking to form governing coalitions in a race for power, Germany was up for a rocky few months that could blunt it on the international stage for some time.

Preliminary results published on public television showed Finance Minister Olaf Scholz's SPD with around 25.5 to 25.9 per cent of the vote, followed closely behind by Merkel's Christian Democrats and their candidate Armin Laschet on about 24.5 per cent.

With the race in dead-heat in what is one of the most unpredictable elections in decades for Europe's biggest economy, the SPD swiftly staked its claim with general secretary Lars Klingbeil saying his party "clearly has the mandate to govern".

Also read: Race wide open as Germany votes in post-Merkel election

"It's going to be a long election night, that's for sure," Scholz said. "But this is certain: that many citizens have put their crosses next to the SPD because they want there to be a change in government and also because they want the next chancellor to be called Olaf Scholz."

With the conservatives staring down the barrel of their worst result since World War II, CDU secretary Paul Ziemiak admitted that the "losses are bitter compared to the last election" in 2017, when the CDU-CSU notched up 33 per cent.

But Laschet, 60, warned that the jury was still out on which party triumphed, as he said that he would "do everything we can to build a government led by the (conservative) Union".

The SPD, Germany's oldest party, was polling so badly just a few months back that many had written off the possibility that it may even be in the next government.

But Scholz, 63, a colourless but competent former mayor of Hamburg, now stands a chance of becoming the first SPD chancellor since Gerhard Schroeder, who lost to Merkel in a close contest in 2005.

The conservatives meanwhile were headed for their worst post-war score even though their candidate Laschet went into the race in the summer as the clear favourite to grab the top job in Europe's biggest economy.

His popularity began to wane after a series of blunders over the summer, including being caught on camera laughing in the background during a tribute to the victims of devastating floods in Germany.

In the meantime, Scholz, who at the start of the year had looked down and out in the race, saw his ratings begin to rise as he avoided making such embarrassing mistakes.

With polls predicting a devastating defeat for Laschet, the conservatives trotted out their biggest asset -- Merkel.

Although she had originally planned to keep a low profile in the campaign, she found herself dragged into Laschet's frantic tour across the country to canvass for last votes -- something that has helped the CDU-CSU to stem a drop in popularity in the last days of the campaign.

Although climate change had been one of the top concerns among voters in the run-up to the vote, it has not translated into a sweep for the ecologist Greens.

In the end, the two parties leading the charts are the same two that have governed Germany together in three of Merkel's coalitions.

For political analyst Karl-Rudolf Korte, Sunday's outcome showed that there is "no clear climate for change -- rather it's a yearning for a new beginning but coupled with stability, more of the same".

Also read: Angela Merkel was underestimated and it became her superpower

The Green party enjoyed a surge in support earlier this year after naming 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock as its chancellor candidate, at one point even briefly taking the lead as the most popular party.

But after a series of missteps by Baerbock, including a plagiarism scandal, the Greens fell well behind the two leading parties, the early results showing them just under 15 per cent of the vote.

While the chancellery may be out of reach for the Greens, the party will likely have a junior role in Germany's next government.

Scholz had voiced his preference for a partnership with the Greens. But if the early results are confirmed, he will need one more party, with the liberal FDP his most likely preference.

However with the FDP a natural bedfellow with the conservatives rather than the centre-left, it could play an outsized role in determining which coalition would stand.

Horsetrading had already begun with the count still on.

In a televised talkshow with party chiefs, FDP leader Christian Lindner said: "It might be advisable for the parties that campaigned against the status quo grand coalition... that is, the Green party and the FDP, to first talk to each other" before deciding whether to partner with the conservatives or the SPD.

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