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Merkel’s bloc sees worst election result since 1949 as Germany’s Social Democrats rise

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Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats were locked in a very close race Sunday with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right bloc, which is heading toward its worst result since 1949 in the country’s parliamentary election, exit polls showed.

Officials from both parties said they hope to lead Germany’s next government and have their candidates succeed Merkel, who has been in power since 2005.

An exit poll for ARD public television put voters’ support at 25 per cent each for the Social Democrats — which is putting forth outgoing Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz for chancellor — and Merkel’s Union bloc under would-be successor state governor Armin Laschet.

Another exit poll for ZDF public television put the Social Democrats ahead by 26 per cent to 24 per cent. Both put the environmentalist Greens in third place with about 15 per cent support. Those results would be the worst for the Union bloc in post-World War II Germany.

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The electoral system typically produces coalition governments but post-war Germany has never previously seen a winning party take less than the 31 per cent of the vote that the Union won in 1949. That was also the centre-right bloc’s worst result until now.

Given the exit poll predictions, putting together the next coalition government for Europe’s biggest economy could be a lengthy and complicated process. Merkel will remain as a caretaker leader until a new government is in place.

The exit polls also put support for the business-friendly Free Democrats at 11-12 per cent and the Left Party at 5 per cent. The far-right Alternative for Germany party — which no other party wants to work with — was seen winning up to 11 per cent of the vote.

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Afghanistan crisis: Merkel says Germany ‘will not forget’ those left in Kabul following explosions outside airport – Aug 26, 2021 The general secretary of Laschet’s Christian Democratic Union, Paul Ziemiak, acknowledged that his bloc had suffered “bitter losses” compared with the last election four years ago, in which it scored 32.9 per cent of the vote. But he said it would be a “long election evening” and pointed to the possibility of a coalition with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats.

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His Social Democrat counterpart, Lars Klingbeil, declared that his party “is back” after languishing for years in the polls and scoring only 20.5 per cent of the vote in 2017. He said “with this, we have the mission to form a coalition.” He wouldn’t say which coalition partners would be approached.

Scholz could also form a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats, if the exit polls hold up. The Greens traditionally lean toward Scholz’s party and the Free Democrats toward Laschet’s. In German elections, the party that finishes first is best-placed, but not guaranteed, to provide the next chancellor.

The Social Democrats have been boosted by Scholz’s relative popularity after a long poll slump, and by his rivals’ troubled campaigns. The Greens’ first candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, suffered from early gaffes and Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, struggled to motivate his party’s traditional base.

The Greens’ general secretary, Michael Kellner, said “we gained considerably, but it’s hard for me to really enjoy it.” He noted that his party has said it prefers to work with the Social Democrats, but said “we are ready to speak with all democratic parties to see what’s possible.”

Another possible governing combination would be a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of Germany’s traditional big parties, the Union and Social Democrats, under whichever of Scholz or Laschet finishes ahead. But neither of the rivals is likely to have much appetite for that after forming an often-tense alliance for 12 of Merkel’s 16 years in power.

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

Merkel won’t be an easy leader to follow, for she has won plaudits for steering Germany through several major crises. 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.

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Germany’s leading parties have significant differences in their proposals for tackling climate change. Laschet’s Union bloc is pinning its hopes on technological solutions and a market-driven approach, while the Greens want to ramp up carbon prices and end the use of coal earlier than planned. Scholz has emphasized the need to protect jobs as Germany transitions to greener energy.

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Foreign policy did not feature much in the campaign, although the Greens favour a tougher stance toward China and Russia.

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Frank Jordans, Kirsten Grieshaber and Karin Laub contributed to this report.

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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