Exit polls in Germany point to an extremely close and indecisive result

THE ATRIUM of the Willy Brandt House, the Berlin headquarters of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), erupted in cheers as an exit poll suggested that the party had achieved 26% of the vote in Germany’s national election, two percentage points ahead of their conservative rivals, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian ally, the CSU. Yet the joy was short-lived. The SPD troops had been watching an exit poll from ZDF, a broadcaster; but another, for ARD, showed a virtual dead heat, with both leading parties on 25% of the vote, and ZDF later updated its poll to show a very similar outcome. Early official projections also projected an extremely close race, albeit with a slight edge for the SPD (our graphic averages out the two polls). An unusually large number of postal ballots, and voting chaos in Berlin, where a city marathon blocked vehicles from delivering extra ballot papers to stations that had run out, added to the confusion.

More clarity will emerge in the hours to come, but a number of governing coalitions now look possible, plunging German, and so European, politics into considerable confusion (though Angela Merkel will remain chancellor until a new government can be formed, possibly not for several months.). Leaders of both the CDU and the SPD claimed a mandate to begin negotiations with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), though it is hard to see how those two smaller parties will be able to conduct simultaneous talks.

In the former case, Armin Laschet, the CDU/CSU candidate to replace Mrs Merkel as chancellor, would lead a “Jamaica” coalition. In the latter, Olaf Scholz would become chancellor at the head of a “traffic-light” coalition (the arrangements take their name from the parties’ colours, and Jamaica’s flag). Both would enjoy clear majorities. A left-wing coalition would unite the SPD, Greens and the hard-left Die Linke; current projections place that grouping slightly short of a potential majority, but it could yet end up with one.

What is clear, though, is that Mr Laschet has led the CDU/CSU to its worst-ever election result, down some 8-9 percentage points from the last election in 2017, itself a historic nadir. The CDU/CSU will take some satisfaction that it has not slumped to the lows found in some recent polls, but the result remains a serious disappointment for a party that has long seen itself as a Kanzlerverein, or “chancellor’s club”. Mr Laschet acknowledged that the party could not be satisfied with its result, but said he would “do everything” to try to form a government that he could lead.

Lars Klingbeil, the SPD’s secretary-general, declared:“The SPD is back,” as he sought to place his party in pole position to begin coalition talks. Exit polls found a strong preference for Mr Scholz to become chancellor over Mr Laschet—and that the party had done particularly well with older voters. The SPD also looks headed for victory in a state election in the north-eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania; but its hopes of holding on to the city-state of Berlin, where another election was held, look uncertain after a late Green surge.

The Greens, meanwhile, are projected to take around 15% of the national vote. Given that the party was briefly leading in polls as recently as April, that will feel like a disappointment. Yet it will still count as the best result in their history. Michael Kellner, the party’s general secretary, said he was “having a hard time getting excited”, but chose to congratulate the SPD on a “great result”. That is a strong invitation to Mr Scholz to start work on a traffic-light coalition. The CSU had lately ruled out the possibility of the centre-right bloc attempting to form a coalition if they placed second in the election. That gives an early advantage to Mr Scholz. But it is early days.