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.