German election: Merkel's party eyes worst result since 1949 as rivals neck and neck

Angela Merkel will stay in charge for the time being - but she could be a lame duck caretaker at a crucial moment, reports ITV News Europe Editor James Mates

Exit polls suggest the German election is too close to call, as the two main rivals were locked in a close race to determine who will succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel's centre-right bloc is heading toward its worst result since 1949, projections showed.The candidate for the centre-right Union bloc, Armin Laschet, said his party would do “everything we can” to form a new government, despite the low result.

Mr Laschet said that “we can’t be satisfied with the result” predicted by exit polls, adding that “the result puts Germany, the Union, all democratic parties before big challenges”.

Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats were locked in a very close race with the Union bloc in the country’s general election on Sunday, according to exit polls. Both appeared to have around 25% of voter support.

What does the result mean? - ITV News Europe Editor James Mates

Mr Laschet said it was likely Germany would have its first national government made up of three parties.

He said that “we will do everything we can to form a government under the Union’s leadership, because Germany now needs a coalition for the future that modernises our country”.

Mr Laschet was surrounded by his party’s senior leaders, including Mrs Merkel, as he spoke at its headquarters in Berlin.

Armin Laschet and his wife Susanne cast their votes for the German parliament election in Aachen Credit: Thilo Schmuelgen/AP

An exit poll for ARD public television put voters’ support at 25% each for the Social Democrats — which is putting forth outgoing Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz for chancellor — and Mrs Merkel’s Union bloc.

Another exit poll for ZDF public television put the Social Democrats ahead by 26% to 24%.

Both put the environmentalist Greens in third place with about 15% support.

Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz casts his vote in the German parliament election in Potsdam Credit: Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP

The electoral system typically produces coalition governments but post-war Germany has never previously seen a winning party take less than the 31% 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.

Mrs 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% to 12% and the Left Party at 5%.

The far-right Alternative For Germany party — which no other party wants to work with — was seen winning up to 11% of the vote.

Candidate for the Green Party Annalena Baerbock speaks at an election campaign event in Wuerzburg Credit: Nicolas Armer/dpa via AP

The general secretary of Mr 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% 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.

His Social Democrat counterpart, Lars Klingbeil, declared that his party “is back” after languishing for years in the polls and scoring only 20.5% of the vote in 2017.

He said “with this, we have the mission to form a coalition” but he would not say which coalition partners would be approached.

A man casts his vote at a polling station in Berlin Credit: Markus Schreiber/AP

Mr Scholz could also form a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats, if the exit polls hold up.

The Greens traditionally lean towards Mr Scholz’s party and the Free Democrats towards Mr Laschet’s.

Mr Scholz proclaimed the projected result a “great success”.

He said many voters had chosen his party “because they want a change of government and because they want this country’s next chancellor to be Olaf Scholz”.

“Now we will wait for the final election result, but then we will get to work,” he told cheering supporters in Berlin.

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 Mr 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 Mr Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, struggled to motivate his party’s traditional base.

The Reichstag building in Berlin which houses the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament Credit: Michael Probst/AP

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 had said it preferred to work with the Social Democrats, but added that “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 Mr Scholz or Mr 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 Mrs Merkel’s 16 years in power.

Mrs Merkel will not be an easy leader to follow, as 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 has so far weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programmes.