As Germany’s election results came into sharper focus on Monday, no party won decisive majority but the loser was clear: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
After 16 years in power under Ms. Merkel’s leadership, they saw their share of the vote collapse by nearly nine points, garnering only 24.1 percent of the vote. It was the party’s worst showing in its history, and the election signaled the end of an era for Germany and for Europe.
The Social Democratic Party defeated Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union by 1.6 percentage points, according to preliminary official results reported early Monday. Their candidate, Olaf Scholz, insisted the party’s gain of five points from 2017 — giving them 25.7 percent of the vote — provided them a mandate to form the next government.
It will likely take at least three parties to form a government and both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats were planning to hold competing talks to do so.
Already Monday, Germany saw the political posturing begin, as the two parties sought to woo partners for a potential government. But the most important potential partners, the environmentalist Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats, decided that they would first hold talks together.
Christian Lindner, the head of the Free Democrats said his party and the Greens, which are the most polarized on key issues of taxes and renewable energy, needed to figure out whether the could find a “progressive center” on which to move ahead before holding talks with any further partners.
The process of forming a new government could take weeks if not months of haggling. That would leave Europe’s biggest democracy suspended in a kind of limbo at a critical moment when the continent is still struggling to recover from the pandemic and France — Germany’s partner at the core of Europe — faces divisive elections of its own next spring.
On Monday morning, Clément Beaune, France’s junior minister for European affairs, told France 2 television that Germany had prioritized “a form of moderation, of stability, of continuity.”
“It is in the French interest to quickly have a strong German government in place,” he said, expressing confidence that France and Germany would remain close partners, regardless of which coalition emerges. He said he saw the main parties as “committed, comfortable pro-Europeans.”
For over a decade, Ms. Merkel was not just chancellor of Germany but effectively the leader of Europe. She steered her country and the continent through successive crises and in the process helped Germany become Europe’s leading power for the first time since World War II.
Cheers erupted at the Social Democratic Party’s headquarters when the exit polls were announced early Sunday evening. A short while later, supporters clapped and chanted “Olaf! Olaf!” as Olaf Scholz, their candidate, took the stage to address the crowd.
“People checked the box for the S.P.D. because they want there to be a change of government in this country and because they want the next chancellor to be called Olaf Scholz,” he said.
The campaign proved to be the most volatile in decades. Armin Laschet, the candidate of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, was long seen as the front-runner until a series of blunders compounded by his own unpopularity eroded his party’s lead. Mr. Scholz had been counted out altogether before his steady persona led his party to a spectacular 10-point comeback. And the Greens, who briefly led the polls early on, fell short of expectations but recorded their best result ever.
Mr. Laschet appeared at his party headquarters an hour after the polls closed, declaring the outcome “unclear” and vowing to try to form a government even if his party came in second.
The progressive, environmentalist Greens made significant gains as compared to the 2017 election but fell short of having a viable shot at the chancellery.
On the outer edge of the political spectrum, support for the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, appeared roughly unchanged, while the Left party appeared to be hovering on the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in Parliament.
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.
A tired looking Olaf Scholz took to the stage Monday morning at his Social Democratic headquarters, making clear that he saw his party’s significant gains in the election as a mandate from voters to head up the next government with the two smaller parties that also made gains in Sunday’s vote.
“Voters have clearly spoken,” he said. “They have said who should build the next government by strengthening three parties, the Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Free Democrats. Consequently, that is the clear mandate that voters of this country have given, that these three parties should create the next government.”
The Social Democrats made significant gains, earning 25.7 percent of the vote, but will still need at least one other partner to form a government. Both the Greens and the Free Democrats also increased their share of seats in Parliament, to 14.8 percent and 11.5 percent, respectively.
But with German voters spreading their support across an wide spectrum of parties, the outcome remained anything but certain, with Christian Democrats still trying to claim they can lead the coalition to form the next government, despite suffering a consequential loss of nearly nine points, to earn only 24.1 percent of the vote.
Mr. Scholz said that result made it “clear” that voters wanted to see the Christian Democrats and their Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Democrats, in the opposition after 16 years in power, under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel. She did not run for election, and the seat that she had held in Parliament since 1990 was won by a Social Democrat.
“The mandate for us is to do what the people want,” Mr. Scholz said, adding that was “to lead a good government that will set the course for the decade ahead, to bring more respect into society, to modernize our industrial sector and to halt the man-made climate change.”
His party suffered its most significant loss since its founding, but Armin Laschet, the head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, refused to concede defeat on Monday, instead positioning himself as skilled at building the bridges needed to form the next German government.
Speaking to reporters after a long meeting of his party’s leaders, Mr. Laschet insisted that the rival Social Democrats, who won the largest share of the vote with 25.7 percent, had no more right to claim a mandate to build a government than his party, even though the Christian Democrats won only 24.1 percent. Mr. Laschet’s candidacy was unpopular within his party’s right wing, and Monday brought finger-pointing and recriminations.
While he conceded that he had played a role in his party’s terrible result, Mr. Laschet did not step down, or even simply congratulate his main rival. Instead, he sought to cast the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats as losing equally, since neither had been able to win 30 percent support.
“For us it is clear that no party can claim a mandate to build a government out of this result,” Mr. Laschet said. “No one should behave as if he alone could build a government.”
He went on to say that his party would talk with all potential partners, adding that they would remain open to speaking with their traditional partners in government, the Free Democrats, who placed fourth, and the Greens, who placed third. The two parties gained significant voter support and are likely to be a part of the next government.
If the Greens and the Free Democrats can reach agreement on key points where they differ, including taxes and energy, they are likely to find themselves in the position of kingmaker — getting to decide which of the two leading parties they would like to govern with.
“He who can build a majority to back him will become chancellor,” Mr. Laschet said.
But there was no getting around the reality that the result was deeply painful for the Christian Democrats and that Mr. Laschet was an unpopular candidate from the outset. Even older voters, the conservatives’ core base, shifted their support to the Social Democrats, voter trends showed.
“I can’t understand at the moment how there is any chance that Armin Laschet could become the next chancellor after this result,” Julia Reuschenbach, a professor of political science at Bonn University, said in a postelection discussion organized by the German Marshall Fund.
Chancellor Angela Merkel will not immediately exit the political stage, although Sunday night’s vote saw her party suffer sweeping losses.
On Monday, she planned to carry out her regular duties throughout the day and attend a reception hosted by the Roman Catholic Church in Berlin in the evening.
Although Ms. Merkel did not run again for the seat she had held since the first reunified German Parliament was elected in 1990, until a new government is formed she will remain in office as head of the acting, or caretaker, government.
The inconclusive result of the vote means that it could be weeks, or months, before a new government is formed. Despite pledges from all parties to try to have a new chancellor in place by Christmas at the latest, there is still a chance that Ms. Merkel, as acting chancellor, could be making the annual New Year’s Eve address to the nation.
After the last election, in 2017, it took 171 days — or nearly six months — to form a new government.
Ms. Merkel announced in the fall of 2018 that she would not run again, and she gave up leadership of her party, the Christian Democratic Union. After that, her position as chancellor was weakened as members of the C.D.U. jockeyed to replace her. She had hoped to stay out of the election campaign, but as the conservative candidate, Armin Laschet, started to flounder, she made several appearances aimed at bolstering support for him.
She is expected to try to take a similarly hands-off approach to steering the caretaker government — if world events allow. The last two years of her fourth and final term in office have included the coronavirus pandemic, what she herself has called “apocalyptic” flooding in western Germany and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Once the new chancellor is sworn in, Ms. Merkel will vacate her office in the imposing concrete building that dominates Berlin’s government district for good.
What she will do next remains to be seen. In response to that question in repeated interviews, she has said that first and foremost she will take time off to reflect and reorient herself before making her next move.
“I will take a break and I will think about what really interests me, because in the past 16 years, I haven’t had the time to do that,” she said in July, after receiving an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University.
“Then I will maybe read a bit, and then my eyes might close because I am tired and I will sleep a bit,” she said, with a smile. “And then we’ll see where I emerge.”
What do a traffic light, the Jamaican flag and a kiwi have in common?
Those watching German politics closely will know all three are nicknames for potential governing coalitions.
In the weeks following the election, the parties will try to form a coalition government that has a majority in the German Parliament. The winning party in the election will have the first chance to try to form that coalition, but if it doesn’t succeed the chance goes to the runner up.
For the first time since the founding of the federal republic 72 years ago, it looks as though it will take at least three parties to form a stable government.
Here’s how things might play out:
Traffic Light Coalition 🚦: This could be the most likely combination. Its name derives from the parties that would be included, the Social Democrats (red), the free market liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Greens (uh, green).
Jamaica Coalition 🇯🇲: If Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (black) should take the lead, Germany might be looking at a Jamaica coalition — named after the black, green and yellow of the Jamaican flag. That bloc would consist of the conservatives, the Greens and the Free Democrats.
And the kiwi 🥝? That would be a duo of the conservatives and the Greens, who have worked together in several state governments, but on current polling are unlikely to command a national majority.
Given the relatively low polling of the once-mighty Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, the topic of possible coalitions has dominated news coverage for weeks in Germany. For the past five years, the two big parties have governed Germany together in a “Grand Coalition,” but they don’t want to repeat that and it might not have a majority in any case.
The Social Democrats and the Greens have governed Germany together before — a prosaically named “Red-Green coalition” was in power from 1997 until 2005 — and have signaled their willingness to work together again. But this time they are not expected to win the seats necessary to get a majority on their own.
Seeing their popularity slip, Merkel’s conservatives and much of the conservative media have warned that an ascendant Social Democrats would turn to the far-left party, Die Linke, to round out their numbers.
After the polls closed and as the votes were being counted on Sunday, all of the heavy-hitting party leaders sat down together, live on public television, to discuss the outcome, as they do after every election.
The discussion is called the Elephant Round, and it is a chance for Germans watching at home to read the tea leaves about the future government.
On Sunday, with the outcome of the election too close to call and the prospect of a three-party coalition being needed for the first time in modern Germany, the round featured a role reversal of sorts. While the two leading candidates, Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet, jockeyed for their right to the chancellery, leaders of the third- and fourth-place finishers made clear that regardless of the election results, the makeup of the next government could be up to them.
Christian Lindner, the head of the Free Democrats, suggested that instead of the winner deciding who he wanted to begin talking to about a potential governing coalition, the parties that appeared to be placed third and fourth should decide which leader they prefer.
“Greens and the Free Democrats, which have the biggest differences on positions, maybe these two first talk to one another and decide where they want to be,” Mr. Lindner said.
The one point that all agreed on was that they wanted to see a government formed quickly.
“It has to be the case that I, that we, do everything we can to ensure we’re done by Christmas,” Mr. Scholz of the Social Democrats said. His main rival, Mr. Laschet of the Christian Democrats, agreed.
It has been said that Germans are sometimes so organized that chaos reigns. Germany’s election system is no exception. It is so complex that even many Germans don’t understand it.
Here’s a brief primer.
Are voters choosing a chancellor today?
Not exactly. Unlike in the United States, voters don’t directly elect their head of government. Rather, they vote for representatives in Parliament, who will choose the next chancellor, but only after forming a government. More on that later.
The major parties declare who they would choose for chancellor, so Germans going to the polls today know who they are in effect voting for. This year the candidates most likely to become chancellor are Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats or Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats. Annalena Baerbock, a Green, has an outside chance.
Who can vote?
Any German citizen 18 or over. They don’t need to register beforehand.
How are seats in Parliament allocated?
Everyone going to the polls today has two votes. The first vote is for a candidate to be the district’s local representative. The second vote is for a party. Voters can split their votes among parties and often do. For example, a person could cast one vote for a Social Democrat as the local member of Parliament, and a second vote for the Christian Democrats as a party.
Parliament has 598 members, but could wind up with many more because of a quirk in the system. The top vote-getter in every district automatically gets a seat in Parliament. These candidates account for half of the members of Parliament. The remaining seats are allocated according to how many second votes each party receives.
But parties may be allocated additional seats according to a formula designed to ensure that every faction in Parliament has a delegation that accurately reflects its national support. So Parliament could easily wind up with 700 members.
Also: A party that polls less than 5 percent doesn’t get any seats at all.
What happens next?
It is very unlikely that any party will wind up with a majority in Parliament. The party that gets the most votes must then try to form a government by agreeing to a coalition with other parties. That has become mathematically more difficult because of the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party and the far-left Linke party.
The mainstream parties have ruled out coalitions with either of those parties because of their extreme positions. But it will be a struggle for the remaining parties to find enough common ground to cobble together a majority. The process could take months.