German election: Exit polls give centre-left SPD narrow lead in shock for Merkel’s CDU

Swinging to the left for the first time in a generation, Germany elected a new parliament on Sunday that is poised to select a centre-left chancellor to succeed the retiring incumbent, Angela Merkel, as the leader of continental Europe’s most dominant and prosperous nation.

After a short but sweet roller-coaster of an election campaign with three different parties taking turns as frontrunners in the quadrennial parliamentary elections, the centre-left Social Democrats led by their colourless Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, 63, came surging from behind — rising improbably from third to first place over the final five weeks of a forgettable, cautious campaign.

In an election that could have lasting repercussions across Europe and bring to an end an era of self-satisfied stagnation in Germany, the SPD emerged with a rare victory as the largest party in the new parliament to be seated in the Reichstag building with 26% of the vote — after four straight federal election defeats stretching back to 2005, according to exit polls announced by public broadcaster ZDF Television after voting stations closed at 6 p.m. Rival network ARD projected the SPD and conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU)both even at 25%. But even if conservatives finish on par with the SPD, they have fewer paths to power because their preferred partners, the Free Democrats, finished a distant fourth.

The SPD, long Germany’s proud guardian of the labour movement but suffering badly as Merkel’s junior partners in a loveless coalition for the last eight years, have vowed to break away from the conservatives and try to form a coalition with two smaller parties – giving post-war Germany its first three-party coalition with at least one unwanted bedfellow that are raising concerns about its stability and longevity.

Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), meanwhile, suffered their worst-ever defeat, falling to second place and ignominiously out of power for the first time in 19 years with 24% of the vote, down from 32.9% in the last election four years ago. Their gaffe-prone candidate Armin Laschet, the uncharismatic state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, squandered a promising early lead in the polls with a series of embarrassing blunders that attracted considerable attention in an otherwise unspectacular election where candidates debated about a lot of first-world problems.

In a race that was his to lose because his conservative party has dominated German politics by ruling for 52 of the last 72 years, Laschet’s amateurish errors ranged from getting caught on camera giggling childishly in the background while German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered a solemn tribute for victims of deadly floods in July to even fumbling the simple act of voting on Sunday by failing to properly fold and seal his ballot – thus allowing polling station workers and photojournalists snapping away to see that he voted for himself.

The pro-environment Greens, who had peaked early and even held a slim lead over the conservatives for about a month in late April and early July, ended up with 15% — a disappointing outcome after an undulating campaign was dominated by their signature climate crisis issue. That was down a surprising 10 points below their earlier peak, which crumbled due to minor discrepancies in candidate Annalena Baerbock’s CV. That was nevertheless nearly double the 8.9% they won in 2017 and should be enough to help the Greens form a coalition with the SPD – and a third partner to be decided

Scholz will have little trouble getting the Greens to join his centre-left coalition after the two parties made it clear in the latter stages of the campaign that they wanted to renew their “red-green” coalition from 1998 to 2005. But with only 40% of the vote, the SPD and Greens will need a third partner and that’s where things will get tricky.

Their preferred choice is the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who came in fourth place with 13% and are eager to get back into power after spending the last eight years in opposition. As much as the FDP would prefer to rule together with the CDU/CSU, there appears to be no path to power on the conservative side as the two parties together have just 37% together.

So the most likely outcome is that the SPD (party banner colour red), Greens (colour green) and FDP (party colour yellow) will hammer out a so-called “Traffic Light” coalition over the next four to eight weeks. If the FDP demands too much or balks at the expected tax-increase proposals from the two left-leaning partners, the SPD and Greens could in theory turn to the far-left Linke party, which finished in sixth place with just 5% of the vote. But both parties have expressed doubts about a so-called “red-red-green” coalition with the party that traces its origins to the Communist SED party and has called for an end of NATO.

The far-right Alternative for Germany party fell to 10% on Sunday, according to exit polls. That was down from 13.3% four years ago.

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