Germany charts new course as Merkel era ends

Voting in Germany’s national election closed at midnight last night, with the center-left Social Democrats appearing to mount a strong challenge to retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

Polls had pointed to a very close race between Merkel’s center-right Union bloc, with state governor Armin Laschet running for chancellor, and the Social Democrats, for whom Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz was seeking the top job.

Merkel has been in power since 2005 but plans to step down after the election, making the vote an era-changing event to set the future course of Europe’s largest economy.

A fractured electorate meant that after the election, leading parties will sound each other out before embarking on more formal coalition negotiations that could take months, leaving Merkel, 67, in charge in a caretaker role.

“We all sense that this is a very important federal election,” state governor Armin Laschet said after voting in Aachen. “It is a federal election that will decide the direction of Germany in coming years.”

Scholz, 63, is the finance minister in Merkel’s right-left coalition who won all three televised debates between the leading candidates.

“I hope that as many citizens as possible will go and vote and make a very strong result for the SPD possible and give me the mandate to become the next chancellor,” Scholz said after casting a ballot in Berlin.

The election was expected to yield a splintered parliament, which will force the winner to form a three-way coalition to secure a majority.

The most likely coalition scenarios see either the SPD or the conservative CDU/CSU bloc – whoever comes first – forming an alliance with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats.

Scholz told supporters his preferred outcome was for the SPD and Greens to secure a majority to rule alone without a third partner.

Both the conservatives and the FDP reject a European “debt union” and want to ensure that joint European Union borrowing to finance the bloc’s coronavirus recovery package remains a one-off. The SPD has talked about taking steps toward a fiscal union.

The Greens favor a common European fiscal policy to support investment in the environment, research, infrastructure and education.

Scholz did not rule out a leftist coalition with the Greens and the Left party, which wants to pull Germany out of NATO, a red line for the SPD.

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