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Merkel’s party loses election in a squeaker. Naming her successor could take months

Olaf Scholz, leader of Germany's Social Democrats
Olaf Scholz, leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, speaks in Berlin on Monday after his party’s narrow election victory.
(Wolfgang Kumm / Deutsche Presse-Agentur)

The party that narrowly beat departing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc pushed Monday for a quick agreement on a coalition government amid concerns that Europe’s biggest economy could be in for weeks of uncertainty after an election that failed to set a clear direction.

Olaf Scholz, the leader of the center-left Social Democrats, called for Merkel’s center-right Union bloc to go into opposition after it saw its worst-ever result in a national election. But both parties finished with well under 30% of the vote, which appeared to put the keys to power in the hands of two opposition parties — raising questions over the stability of a future government.

Armin Laschet, the Union’s candidate, disputed the idea that the election gave any party a clear mandate, and made clear he still hopes to lead a new government. But he sounded considerably less confident Monday than he did a day earlier, when he said his bloc would do “everything we can” to form one — and some allies hinted at skepticism that that would happen.

Whoever becomes chancellor will lead Germany into a new era. During her 16 years in office, Merkel was seen abroad not just as Germany’s leader but in many ways as all of Europe’s, helping steer the European Union through a series of financial and political crises and ensuring that her country maintained a high profile on the international stage. It remains to be seen whether the next chancellor will match her global standing.

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The unclear result, combined with an upcoming French presidential election in April, creates uncertainty — at least for now — in the two economic and political powers at the center of the EU, just as the bloc faces a resurgent Russia and increasing questions about its future from populist leaders in Eastern European countries.

Both Scholz, who is the departing finance minister and vice chancellor, and Laschet, who is governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, staked a claim to leading the new government Sunday night. Scholz, who pulled his party out of a long poll slump, sounded confident Monday.

Angela Merkel, a once-obscure scientist who claimed the global spotlight, leaves a mixed legacy as her 16-year tenure as Germany’s chancellor ends.

But the kingmakers are likely to be two prospective junior partners in any coalition, the environmentalist Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats. The Greens traditionally lean toward the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats toward the Union, but neither has ruled out going the other way.

“Voters have spoken very clearly,” Scholz said Monday. “They strengthened three parties — the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats — so this is the visible mandate the citizens of this country have given: These three parties should lead the next government.”

Laschet said his party also wants to lead a coalition with the two smaller parties. The only other option that would command a parliamentary majority is a repeat of the “grand coalition” of the Union and Social Democrats. That is the grouping that has run Germany for 12 of Merkel’s 16 years at the top, though this time it would be under Scholz’s leadership, with Merkel’s bloc as junior partner. That coalition has often been marred by squabbling, and there is little appetite for it.

Scholz and others were keen to dispel concerns that lengthy haggling and a new, multiparty government would mean unstable leadership in Europe’s biggest economy.

About 20 million German voters were expected to turn to their phones or other online devices for app advice on which candidates to pick on Sunday.

“My idea is that we will be very fast in getting a result for this government, and it should be before Christmas if possible,” Scholz told reporters in Berlin. “Germany always has coalition governments, and it was always stable.”

Scholz, an experienced and pragmatic politician whose calm, no-frills style is in some ways reminiscent of Merkel’s, pointed to continuity in foreign policy. He said a priority would be “to form a stronger and more sovereign European Union.”

“But doing so means also to work very hard on the good relationship between ... the European Union and the United States,” he added. “The transatlantic partnership is of [the] essence for us in Germany ... and so you can rely on continuity in this question.”

Scholz was clear that Merkel’s Union bloc should bow out of government. He said the Union “received the message from citizens that they should no longer be in government but go into opposition.”

But Laschet held out the possibility that he might form a coalition despite what he called “painful losses,” for which he said he bears a “personal share” of the blame. Other senior center-right figures were more skeptical.

Markus Soeder, the more popular Union politician whom Laschet beat to run as the bloc’s nominee for chancellor, said a second-place party had “no entitlement” to form a government, “so we can only make an offer.”

The Greens made significant gains in the election to finish third but fell far short of their original aim of taking the chancellery, and the Free Democrats improved slightly on a good result from 2017.

Merkel’s outgoing government will remain in office until a successor is sworn in, a process that can take weeks or months. Merkel announced in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term.

During Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis, Germany took in more than 1 million newcomers, sparking a backlash by some. Five years on, tensions have eased.

Amid concern over rising nationalism and populism, other European leaders will be reassured that mainstream parties will form Germany’s next government. Sunday’s election saw weaker results for the far-right Alternative for Germany and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Left Party. The strong showing by the Greens could also help ease passage of the EU’s landmark “Fit for 55” climate change package aimed at making the 27-nation bloc carbon-neutral within 30 years.

Final official results gave the Social Democrats 25.7% of the vote and the Union 24.1%. Four years ago, they won 20.5% and 32.9% respectively. The Union — made up of Laschet’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union — had never previously polled below 31% in a national parliamentary election.

The Greens took 14.8%, the Free Democrats 11.5% and Alternative for Germany 10.3% — a decline from the 12.6% it took to enter parliament for the first time in 2017. The smallest party in the new parliament is the Left Party, which won just 4.9% of the vote.

The new Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, will have a record 735 lawmakers. The parliament varies in size because of a peculiarity of Germany’s electoral system, which means that it can be considerably bigger than the minimum 598 seats.


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