Preliminary results indicated that the outcome was so tight that it could take months of negotiations to form a new government at a crucial moment for Europe.
BERLIN — After 16 years of Angela Merkel as its chancellor, Germans scattered their votes across the political spectrum in Sunday’s election to replace her, a fractured return that was marked by a messy political era in Germany and a weakening German leadership in Europe. initiates.
Preliminary results gave the centre-left Social Democrats a small lead, but were so close that no one could yet say who would be the next chancellor nor what the next government would look like.
The only thing that seemed clear was that it would take weeks if not months to form a coalition, leaving Europe’s largest democracy in a sort of limbo at a crucial moment when the continent was still recovering from the pandemic and France. – Germany’s partner at the core of Europe – faces its divisive elections next spring.
Sunday’s election signaled the end of an era for Germany and Europe. For more than a decade, Ms. Merkel was not only the Chancellor of Germany but effectively the leader of Europe. He propelled his country and continent through successive crises and in the process helped Germany to become Europe’s leading power for the first time since the two world wars.
His time in office was characterized above all by consistency. His centre-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, has ruled Germany for 52 of the 72 years, traditionally with a smaller party.
But the campaign proved to be the most unstable in decades. Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats candidate Armin Lashet was long seen as the frontrunner, until a series of mistakes linked to her own unpopularity destroyed her party’s lead. Social Democratic candidate Olaf Scholz was fully counted on his party due to his stable personality before a spectacular return of 10 points. And the Greens, who briefly led early in the election, fell short of expectations, but recorded their best result ever.
On Sunday, Christian Democrats’ vote share fell below 30 percent, heading for their worst performance in history. For the first time, forming a coalition will require three parties – and the two main parties are planning to hold competitive talks to do so.
“It is so unprecedented that it is not even clear who talks about what at whose invitation, because the constitution does not have a guardrail for such a position,” said Thomas Klein-Brockhoff, Berlin-based vice president of the German Marshall Fund. , a research group.
Even before the first official return was announced, battle lines were drawn over the main contender for Ms Merkel’s successor, as the chancellor announced his claims for the top job – and his intention to fight for it. A long tradition of respectful, consensus-driven politics was fast fading away, giving way to a more raucous tone.
At the Social Democrats’ headquarters in Berlin, when the first exit polls were announced, there was loud cheers. “SPD is back!” Mr Scholz took the stage with his wife before party general secretary Lars Klingbeil told the crowd of party members, insisting that “the next chancellor be called Olaf Scholz.”
Across the city, at the Conservative headquarters, Mr. Laschet, the candidate of Merkel’s party, clarified who according to him should be the next chancellor, “we will do everything to form a government.”
It is a messy set of circumstances complicating negotiations to form a government. And whoever becomes chancellor will not only have a weaker mandate – but less time to spend on leading Europe, analysts said.
“Germany will be absent in Europe for some time,” said Andrea Romelle, dean of the Herty School in Berlin. “And whoever becomes chancellor is likely to deviate too much from domestic politics.”
With two-thirds of the voting districts counting, the Social Democrats saw a slight lead, with less than two percentage points dividing the two main parties. Analysts said the vote could continue to swing marginally in favor of either party. Four out of 10 Germans voted by mail-in ballots, which were being counted at the same time as the votes fell in the ballot boxes.
But some expected a dramatic turnaround that would produce less questionable results and reduce the need for lengthy coalition talks.
The result gives significant advantages to two smaller parties that are almost certain to be part of any new government: the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. Courtesy of both Mr. Scholz and Mr. Lachette, they have indicated that they will speak to each other first.
“Two maybe-chancellors and two kingmakers,” read a title of the German public broadcaster ARD.
In a way, Sunday’s return was an expression of how distraught voters are at the departure of Ms Merkel, who is stepping down as the most popular politician in her country.
The chancellor oversaw a golden decade for Europe’s largest economy, expanding to more than a fifth, pushing unemployment to its lowest level since the 1980s.
As the United States was distracted by several wars, Britain bet its future on a referendum to leave the European Union and France failed to reform itself, Ms Merkel’s Germany was mostly a haven of stability.
“She was a steady hand on top, a steady presence,” said Mr. Klein-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund.
He said, ‘Now there is uneasiness about what will happen next. “The presence and prestige of this chancellor is enormous and very hard to emulate.”
This explains why both main candidates ran on platforms of continuity rather than change to succeed him, attempting to indicate where possible that he would be most like the departing chancellor.
“This election campaign was basically a contest to be the most Merkel-like can be,” Mr. Klein-Brockhoff said.
Even Mr Scholz, whose centre-left party is the traditional opposition to Ms Merkel’s conservatives, played down her role as finance minister in the late government, rather than her party’s sensibilities, who were well on her own left. is in a way.
“Sustainability, not change, was his promise,” said Mr. Klein-Brockhoff.
The distinctive political tradition of the Federal Republic of Germany is transformation through consensus.
In the four decades it had split from the communist east, West Germany had strong governments, traditionally one of the two large parties with a smaller partner or, in rare circumstances, the two large parties forming a grand coalition. This tradition was continued after reunification in the 1990s, with far-reaching changes – such as the labor market reforms of the 2000s – often accompanied by support from across the aisle.
But four parties have become seven and two traditional main parties have shrunk, changing the arithmetic of forming a government representing more than 50 percent of the vote. Analysts say that in the future, three or four, not two, parties will have to find enough common ground to rule together.
Some analysts say that this growing fragmentation of Germany’s political landscape has the potential to revive politics by bringing more voices into public debate. But this will undoubtedly make governance difficult, as Germany has become like other countries in Europe – among them, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands – that have seen a similar fracture. And dirty politics could undermine the next chancellor.
Ms Merkel has perhaps more embodied the consensus tradition than her predecessors. Of his four terms in office, he spent three in a grand alliance with his party’s traditional opponents, the Social Democrats.
Reigning as Ms Merkel’s junior partners nearly wiped out the Social Democrats, Germany’s oldest party, stripping it of its identity and its place as the leading voice of the centre-left opposition. But Mr Scholz used his warm relationship with the chancellor to his advantage, effectively running as an incumbent in a race without one.
He was being celebrated at party headquarters on Sunday night as a savior by party members who were adamant that the chancellor belonged to him.
“The SPD is the winner here,” insisted longtime party member, Carsten Headey, while Ernst-Ingo Lind, who works for an MP, said that only a year ago, he “dreamed to be here.” Wouldn’t have seen it.”
Among the parties to be represented in the next German parliament is the Alternative for Germany, or AFD, which four years earlier stunned the country by becoming the first far-right party to win seats since World War II. Its vote share dropped from about 13 per cent in 2017 to 10.5 per cent and will no longer be the country’s main opposition party. But it cemented its position as an enduring force. It came first in two states in the former communist east.
“We are here to stay, and we showed up today,” party co-leader Tino Kripalla told party members on the outskirts of Berlin.
For all the messiness of this election and Merkel’s nostalgia, many Germans took heart from the fact that more than eight out of 10 voters had cast their vote for a centrist party and that the turnout was high.
Mobilization was evident outside several polling stations in Berlin, where families waited patiently for their turn in long lines.
“This is the beginning of a new era,” said Ms Rommel of the Herty School.
Christopher F. Schuetz, Jack Ewing and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.