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Social Democrats beat Merkel’s bloc in German elections

BERLIN — The center-left Social Democrats have won the biggest share of the vote in Germany’s national election, beating outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Union bloc in a closely fought race.

Election officials said early 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.

The environmentalist Greens came third with 14.8% followed by the pro-business Free Democrats with 11.5%. The two parties have already signaled that they are willing to discuss forging a three-way alliance with either of their two bigger rivals to form a government.

The far-right Alternative for Germany came fourth in Sunday’s vote with 10.3%, while the Left party took 4.9%.

For the first time since 1949, the Danish minority party SSW was set to win a seat in parliament, officials said.

The Social Democrats have been boosted by outgoing Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s relative popularity after a long poll slump, and by his rivals’ troubled campaigns.

About 60.4 million people in the nation of 83 million are eligible to elect the new Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, which will elect the next head of government.

No party is expected to come anywhere near an outright majority.

Such a result could mean that many governing coalitions are mathematically possible, and trigger weeks or months of haggling to form a new government. Until it is in place, Merkel will remain in office on a caretaker basis.

Scholz voted in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, saying he hopes voters “will make possible … a very strong result for the Social Democrats, and that citizens will give me the mandate to become the next chancellor of Germany.”

Merkel has won plaudits for steering Germany through several major crises. Her successor will have to tend the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany so far has weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programs that have incurred new debt.

In Berlin, Wiebke Bergmann, a 48-year-old social worker, said Merkel’s departure makes this a “really special” election.

“I really thought hard about which candidate I want as next chancellor — until this morning I hadn’t made up my mind. None of the three really convinced me,” Bergmann added. “All seem fine as human beings, but I’m not sure they can do a good job as next chancellor.”

In the capital’s Kreuzberg district, a traditional left-wing stronghold, Jan Kemper, a 41-year-old manager at an online bank, said climate change and Germany’s slow pace of digitalization were among his main concerns. He praised Merkel’s crisis management style, but said key issues were left unattended.

“Previously, elections set the course for the next two to four years,” he said. “Now decisions have to be made that will affect the next generations.”

Scholz has said he’d like a two-party coalition with the Greens, but that looks very optimistic. Absent a majority for that, his first choice would likely be an alliance with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats.

The Bundestag has at least 598 seats, but Germany’s complex voting system means it can be much larger. The outgoing parliament had a record 709 lawmakers; the new one is widely expected to be even bigger.

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