The centre-left Social Democrats have won the biggest share of the vote in Germany’s national election, beating outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc in a closely-fought race.
Election officials said early on Monday that a count of all 299 constituencies showed the Social Democrats won 25.9% of the vote, ahead of 24.1% for the Union bloc.
No winning party in a German national election had previously taken less than 31% of the vote.
The Social Democrats’ candidate Olaf Scholz, the outgoing vice chancellor and finance minister who pulled his party out of a years-long slump, said the outcome was “a very clear mandate to ensure now that we put together a good, pragmatic government for Germany”.
Despite getting its worst-ever result in a federal contest, the Union bloc said it too would reach out to smaller parties to discuss forming a government, while Ms Merkel stays on in a caretaker role until a successor is sworn in.
Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state who outmanoeuvred a more popular rival to secure the nomination of Ms Merkel’s Union bloc, had struggled to motivate the party’s base and suffered a series of missteps.
“Of course, this is a loss of votes that isn’t pretty,” Mr Laschet said of results that looked set to undercut by some measure the Union’s previous worst showing of 31% in 1949.
But he added that with Ms Merkel departing after 16 years in power, “no one had an incumbent bonus in this election”.
Mr Laschet told supporters that “we will do everything we can to form a government under the Union’s leadership, because Germany now needs a coalition for the future that modernizes our country.”
Both Mr Laschet and Mr Scholz will be courting the same two parties: the environmentalist Greens, who were third with 14.8%; and the pro-business Free Democrats, who took 11.5% of the vote.
The Greens traditionally lean toward the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats toward the Union, but neither ruled out going the other way.
The other option was a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the Union and Social Democrats that has run Germany for 12 of Ms Merkel’s 16 years in power, but there was little obvious appetite for that after years of government squabbling.
Mr Laschet said: “Everyone thinks that … this ‘grand coalition’ isn’t promising for the future, regardless of who is No 1 and No 2. We need a real new beginning.”
The Free Democrats’ leader, Christian Lindner, appeared keen to govern, suggesting that his party and the Greens should make the first move.
“About 75% of Germans didn’t vote for the next chancellor’s party,” Mr Lindner said in a post-election debate with all parties’ leaders on public broadcaster ZDF.
“So it might be advisable … that the Greens and Free Democrats first speak to each other to structure everything that follows.”
While the Greens improved their support from the last election in 2017, they had higher expectations for Sunday’s vote.
All of those in Europe and beyond who were worried about Germany's stability can now see: Germany will be stable in any caseChristian Lindner
The Left Party was projected to win only 4.9% of the vote and risked being kicked out of parliament entirely.
The far-right Alternative for Germany — which no one else wants to work with — received 10.3%. This was about 2 percentage points less than in 2017, when it first entered parliament.
For the first time since 1949, the Danish minority party SSW was set to win a seat in parliament, officials said.
Whichever parties form the next German government, Mr Lindner said it was “good news” that it would have a majority with centrist parties.
He said: “All of those in Europe and beyond who were worried about Germany’s stability can now see: Germany will be stable in any case.”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez sent early congratulations to Mr Scholz, writing on Twitter: “Spain and Germany will continue to work together for a stronger Europe and for a fair and green recovery that leaves no one behind.”
Due to Germany’s complicated electoral system, a full breakdown of the result by seats in parliament was still pending.