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BERLIN – Germany’s center-left Social Democrats were in a very close race on Sunday with the center-right bloc of outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who are heading for their worst result in the country’s parliamentary elections, according to projections .

Senior officials from both parties have said they hope to lead Germany’s next government and see their candidates succeed Merkel, who has been in power since 2005.

Projections for public television ARD, based on exit polls and early counting, place voter support at 24.9% for the Social Democrats – which nominates outgoing Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz as chancellor – and at 24.7% for the Union bloc under Merkel will be the successor of state governor Armin Laschet.

Separate projections for public television ZDF put the Social Democrats in the lead from 25.6% to 24.4%. Both put the Greens environmentalists in third place with around 15% support.

These results would be the worst for the Union bloc in post-war Germany.

The electoral system usually produces coalition governments, but post-war Germany never saw a winning party win less than the Union’s 31% of the vote in 1949. It was also the worst result. of the center-right block so far.

Given the exit predictions, forming the next coalition government for Europe’s largest economy could be a long and complicated process. Merkel will remain as interim leader until a new government is in place. In German elections, the party that finishes first is in the best position, but not guaranteed, to provide the next chancellor.

The projections also place support for the business-friendly Free Democrats at around 11% and the Left Party at 5%. The far-right Alternative for Germany party – which no other party wants to work with – won around 11% of the vote.

Surrounded by Merkel and senior officials from her party, Laschet said “we cannot be satisfied with the outcome” predicted by exit polls. The Union won 32.9% of the vote four years ago. He declared that “the result places Germany, the Union, all democratic parties, in front of great challenges”.

“We will do everything possible to form a government under the leadership of the Union, because Germany now needs a coalition for the future which modernizes our country,” he promised.

Laschet’s most likely path to power is a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats.

The Social Democrats, for their part, celebrated their comeback after voting just 20.5% in 2017 and slipping well below in recent years. Their secretary general, Lars Klingbeil, said “with this we have the mission to form a coalition”. He would not say which coalition partners would be approached.

Scholz of the Social Democrats could also form a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats, if the projected results hold. The Greens traditionally lean towards the party of Scholz and the Free Democrats towards that of Laschet.

Scholz proclaimed that the intended outcome was a “great success”. He said many voters chose his party “because they want a change of government and because they want the next chancellor of this country to be Olaf Scholz”.

“Now we will wait for the final result of the elections, but then we will get to work,” he told Berlin supporters.

The Social Democrats were boosted by the relative popularity of Scholz after their long electoral crisis and by the troubled campaigns of his rivals. The Greens’ first candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, suffered from early blunders and Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, struggled to motivate her party’s traditional base.

The Greens saw their support increase significantly, but had hoped for more.

“We have won a lot, but it is difficult for me to really take advantage of it,” said Greens secretary general Michael Kellner. He noted that his party had said it preferred to work with the Social Democrats, but added “we are ready to speak with all Democratic parties to see what is possible”.

Another possible government combination would be a repetition of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the great traditional German parties, the Union and the Social Democrats, under that of Scholz or Laschet who finished ahead. But none of the rivals are likely to have much of an appetite for it after forming an often strained alliance for 12 of Merkel’s 16 years in power.

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

Merkel will not be an easy leader to follow, as she has received praise for guiding Germany through several major crises. His successor will have to oversee the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany has so far resisted relatively well thanks to extensive rescue programs.

Laschet insists there should be no tax increases as Germany pulls out of the pandemic. Scholz and Baerbock are in favor of tax increases for the wealthiest Germans, and also support an increase in the minimum wage.

The main German parties have significant differences in their proposals for tackling climate change. The Laschet Union bloc is pinning its hopes on technological solutions and a market-oriented approach, while the Greens want to raise carbon prices and end the use of coal sooner than expected. Scholz stressed the need to protect jobs as Germany shifts to greener energy.

Foreign policy did not feature much in the campaign, although the Greens favor a tougher stance on China and Russia.

In two regional elections which were also held on Sunday, Berlin looked set to secure its first green mayor, a post the Social Democrats have held for two decades. The Greens were to get 23.5% of the vote, an increase of over 8%. The Social Democrats appeared to hold their 21.5% share and the center-right Christian Democrats were expected to come third with 15%.

In a second regional election, the Social Democrats were to win a solid victory in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, with 37% of the vote, ahead of the far-right Alternative for the Germany with 18.5%.

Frank Jordans, Kirsten Grieshaber and Karin Laub contributed to this report.

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