Polls close in Germany’s unpredictable election

Exit polls show neck-and-neck race between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and rival Social Democrats.

Polls in Germany have closed in one of the most unpredictable elections in its recent history, with Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats in a tight race for her crown as she prepares to leave the political stage.

Tens of millions of voters headed to polling stations on Sunday to determine the country’s next government and the chancellor who will lead it.

Voting ended at 16:00 GMT with exit polls showing a neck-and-neck race between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and rival Social Democrats.

The election is the first since the county reunified in 1990 that Merkel will not run in as a candidate.

Christian Democrats’ (CDU) Armin Laschet and Social Democrats’ (SPD) Olaf Scholz are frontrunners in the race to replace Merkel as the country’s next chancellor, as she prepares to leave office after 16 years in power.

Officials from both parties said they hope to lead the next government.

“The SPD has the mandate to govern. We want Olaf Scholz to be chancellor,” SPD Secretary-General Lars Klingbeil said shortly after first exit polls. He said the exit polls put the SPD ahead.

Sandra Plümer, a political researcher at the NRW School of governance told Al Jazeera that the SPD is “currently ahead, even if the polls can still change in the course of the evening.

“So the chances [of Scholz becoming chancellor] are good for now,” Plümer said.

“But now it also depends on who claims mandate for government and who ultimately leads the coalition.”

A tight result would mean that either the SPD or CDU could lead a governing coalition.

“It has already happened three times in German history that the party with the most votes did not provide the chancellor – so we have to wait and see”,  Plümer said.

The small margin indicates the distribution of seats in the Bundestag will be very close, under Germany’s dual voting system where voters choose both an individual candidate, and a party.

Given the exit poll predictions, putting together the next coalition government for Europe’s biggest economy could be a lengthy and complicated process. Merkel will remain as a caretaker leader until a new government is in place.

The environmentalist Greens have been predicted to make a historic breakthrough, winning 15 percent of the vote, becoming the third biggest political group in the parliament.

The electoral system typically produces coalition governments but post-World War II Germany has never previously seen a winning party take less than 31 percent of the vote – or the Union bloc score less than that.

Berlin is currently governed by a coalition government led by the SPD along with the hard-left Die Linke (The Left) and the Greens.

With reporting by Ruairi Casey in Berlin, Germany.

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