Germany was tilting towards a centre-left government on Sunday evening as its federal election ended with a narrow lead for the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Early projections indicate SPD secured 25.7 per cent of the vote, up five percentage points on the 2017 election and one point ahead of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The CDU's first election outing without chancellor Angela Merkel ended in fiasco: a historic eight-point slide in support to 24.3 per cent.
An hour after polls closed, with votes still being counted and a projected turnout of 76 per cent, SPD lead candidate Olaf Scholz, Germany's vice-chancellor, insisted the German electorate's message was clear: a post-Merkel rush away from the CDU.
"I want to be chancellor and in talks I will do everything to ensure that a government is formed quickly," said Mr Scholz, who secured 90 per cent of the vote in his Potsdam constituency west of Berlin. Pointing to his party's surge in support – 10 percentage points in polls in the last eight weeks – he added: "We have parties tonight who won a lot and parties who lost a lot."
CDU leader Armin Laschet insisted all was not lost. But leading officials conceded "bitter losses" as late-night projections firmed up the party's first federal election defeat since 2002.
Mr Laschet insisted his party wanted to lead the next government but, with his own political future now uncertain, he added: “I plan to lead exploratory talks for the CDU and we will decide on the party leadership after that.”
Germany's Greens and liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) polled strongly and insisted they would play hard to get in upcoming coalition talks.
Despite disastrous floods and a surge in climate concerns, the Green Party fell short of early campaign expectations. But campaign leader Annalena Baerbock still pulled in the party's best-ever result with 14 per cent, up five points on 2017.
“This country needs a climate government and we will fight for that now with you all,” she told supporters.
FDP leader Christian Lindner insisted that his party was open to talks with all, but that he would blunt tax-hike plans before joining any SPD-Green alliance.
“After the election we will maintain our independence as we did before the poll,” said Mr Lindner.
The lesson of Sunday’s election, he said, was that Germany’s centre had been strengthened and the fringes weakened.
The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) secured a second Bundestag term but slipped down two points to 10.6 per cent. Party officials attributed their losses to a rise in smaller parties, none of whom made it into parliament after failing individually to reach the 5 per cent vote-share threshold, but who took a combined 8 per cent of the vote.
Germany’s far-left Linke are fighting for Bundestag survival as a mass defection of voters to the SPD left it teetering on the 5 per cent parliamentary hurdle.
Even as vote-counting continued, the battle lines for coalition talks became clear in post-election discussions.
Mr Scholz made clear he would deliver on election promises to boost the minimum wage, stabilise pensions and prioritise climate change policies by easing bureaucracy to boost private-sector investment.
The Green Party wants to finance Germany’s climate-change transformation by supplementing a constitutional requirement for balanced budgets with a public investment component.
Meanwhile, the FDP opposes key parts of SPD and Green policy, favouring tax breaks for top earners and business – which is also supported by the CDU.
Sunday night projections suggested the new Bundestag will have a record 730 seats, 132 above its official number, due to arrangements to accommodate directly elected candidates.
Such a parliament would require a majority of 366 seats to rule. An SPD-led so-called “traffic light” coalition with the smaller Greens and the “amber” FDP is forecast to have a 10-seat lead on the “Jamaica” option led by the “black” CDU with Green-FDP backing.
Mr Scholz insisted he would expedite talks, vowing that “chancellor Merkel won’t have to hold her [Christmas] address this year”.