Closely fought German election ushers in post-Merkel era

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BERLIN – German voters were on Sunday electing a new parliament in an election that will determine who will succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel at the top of Europe’s largest economy, 16 years later.

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Voting on Sunday points to a very close race between Merkel’s centre-right union bloc, with state governor Armin Laschet running for chancellor, and centre-left Social Democrats, for whom outgoing finance minister and Chancellor Olaf is running for chance. Scholz is looking for the top job.

Recent polls show the Social Democrats to be marginally ahead. The environmentalist Greens, along with candidate Annalena Berbock, are making their first run for chancellor, and polls put them several points behind in third place.

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The Social Democrats have been boosted by the relative popularity of Scholz and the troubled campaigns of his rivals after a long turnout. Bairbock faced early gaffes and Lechet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has struggled to inspire his party’s traditional base.

About 60.4 million people in the country of 83 million are eligible to elect the new Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, which will elect the next head of government.

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No party is expected to come close to an absolute majority. Polls show support for all of them below 30%.

Such an outcome could mean that multiple governing coalitions are mathematically possible, and trigger weeks or months of bargaining to form a new government. Until this comes into force, Merkel will remain in office on a caretaker basis.

This election “will determine the direction of Germany in the years to come, and so it will come down to every vote,” Laschet said in Aachen, on Germany’s western border.

Scholz, who voted in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, said he hoped voters would “possible … a very strong result for the Social Democrats, and that the citizens would give me the mandate to be the next chancellor of Germany.”

Also voting in Potsdam, Beerbock said that his party is “expecting a few more votes” than the elections predicted “so that we can have a real new departure in this country.”

Merkel has won praise for running Germany in the midst of several major crises. His successor will have to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany has so far done relatively well thanks to large rescue programs that have raised new debt.

Laschet insisted there should be no tax increase as Germany exits the pandemic. Scholz and Baerbock support tax increases for the richest Germans, and also support an increase in the minimum wage.

There are significant differences between Germany’s major parties in their proposals to tackle climate change. Lachette’s union bloc is pinning its hopes on technological solutions and a market-driven approach, while the Greens want to hike carbon prices and end coal use earlier than planned. Scholz has emphasized the need to protect jobs as Germany transitions to green energy.

Foreign policy hasn’t shown much in the campaign, though the Greens support a tougher stance toward China and Russia.

In Berlin, Wibke Bergmann, 48, a social activist, said Merkel’s departure makes this a “really special” election.

“I had really thought a lot about which candidate I wanted as the next chancellor – I hadn’t made up my mind until this morning. None of the three really convinced me,” Bergman said. “All seems well as a man, but I’m not sure he can do a good job as the next chancellor.”

Jan Kemper, 41, manager of an online bank in the capital’s Kreuzberg district, a traditional left-wing stronghold, said climate change and Germany’s slow pace of digitization were among his main concerns. He praised Merkel’s crisis management style, but said key issues were ignored.

“First, the elections set the course for the next two to four years,” he said. “Decisions now have to be made that will affect generations to come.”

During the campaign, Laschet and other Union leaders claimed that Scholz and the Greens would form an alliance with the opposition Left, which opposes NATO and German military deployments abroad. Given foreign policy and other differences between the parties, whether such a partnership is realistic is questionable, but that line of attack could help oust conservative voters.

Scholz has said he wants a two-party alliance with the Greens, but looks too optimistic. In the absence of a majority for him, his first choice would likely be an alliance with the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats.

An alliance with those two parties is also the most likely route for Lasset to come to power. The Greens favor an alliance with the Social Democrats, while the Free Democrats prefer an alliance with the Union.

The result could also allow the outgoing “grand coalition” of the traditional major parties, the Union and the Social Democrats, to be replicated under Scholz or Laskett.

The far-right alternative for Germany is voting slightly less than the 12.6% it won to enter parliament in 2017, but will not join any new government this time. All other parties say they will not work with it.

There are at least 598 seats in the Bundestag, but Germany’s complex voting system means it could be much larger. The outgoing parliament had a record 709 MPs; The new is widely expected to be even bigger.

Also on Sunday, voters in Berlin and northeastern Germany’s Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania – both states currently led by the Social Democrats – are electing new state legislatures.

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