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Germany votes in pivotal election ushering in post-Merkel era

Conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats are neck and neck and pollsters say the race is ‘wide open’

Top candidates for the upcoming German general elections (Left to right) Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats SPD; Annalena Baerbock of Germany's Greens (Die Gruenen); and Armin Laschet of the conservative CDU-CSU party union pose for pictures before a "Triell" television debate, on September 19, 2021, in Berlin, ahead of Germany's general elections scheduled for September 26. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)
Top candidates for the upcoming German general elections (Left to right) Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats SPD; Annalena Baerbock of Germany's Greens (Die Gruenen); and Armin Laschet of the conservative CDU-CSU party union pose for pictures before a "Triell" television debate, on September 19, 2021, in Berlin, ahead of Germany's general elections scheduled for September 26. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

BERLIN (AFP) — Germany votes on Sunday in one of the most unpredictable elections in its recent history, with Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats in a tight race for her crown as she prepares to leave the political stage.

The epochal election ushers in the end of 16 years in power for Merkel and places Germany, a byword for stability, in a new period of uncertainty.

Opinion polls show the race for the chancellery headed for a photo finish, with Merkel’s CDU-CSU conservative alliance on around 23 percent, just behind the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) on 25% — well within the margin of error.

“We will certainly see some surprises on Sunday,” said Nico Siegel, head of the Infratest Dimap polling company.

Despite the SPD’s lead in the polls, a victory for the conservatives “can’t be ruled out,” he said.

“The race for first place is wide open.”

Around 40% of Germany’s 60.4 million eligible voters have said that they are undecided, while the same proportion have already cast their ballots by post — including Merkel herself.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during a campaign rally for Christian Democratic Union CDU leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet in Aachen, western Germany, on September 25, 2021, one day ahead of the German federal elections. (Ina Fassbender/AFP)

The battle for the chancellery has boiled down to a contest between two men: Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, 63, of the SPD, and Armin Laschet, 60, of the CDU-CSU.

But with both parties likely to fall well short of the majority needed to govern alone, there could be weeks or even months of fraught coalition negotiations.

After Germany’s last election in September 2017, it wasn’t until February before the CDU-CSU formed a coalition with the SPD.

Laschet, an affable but gaffe-prone centrist and longtime Merkel ally, was for some time the clear favorite to take the reins after the veteran chancellor leaves the stage.

Christian Democratic Union CDU leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stand on stage as they wave to supporters during their campaign rally in Aachen, western Germany, on September 25, 2021, one day ahead of the German federal elections. (Ina Fassbender / AFP)

But his popularity began to wane after a series of blunders over the summer, including being caught on camera laughing in the background during a tribute to the victims of devastating floods in Germany.

In the meantime, Scholz, who at the start of the year had looked down and out in the race, saw his ratings begin to rise as he avoided making such embarrassing mistakes.

Often described as capable but boring, Scholz has positioned himself as a safe pair of hands and the true Merkel continuity candidate, despite hailing from a different party.

Billboards with election campaign posters showing the three chancellor candidates in the the September 26 federal election, (Left to right) Co-leader of Germany’s Greens (Die Gruenen) Annalena Baerbock; German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor of the Social Democratic SPD Party Olaf Scholz; and Christian Democratic Union CDU leader Armin Laschet are seen in Berlin. on September 25, 2021. (John Macdougall/AFP)

Along with social justice, climate change has been one of the top concerns among voters in the run-up to the election.

The Green party enjoyed a surge in support earlier this year after naming 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock as its chancellor candidate, at one point even briefly taking the lead as the most popular party.

Top candidates for the upcoming German general elections, (Left to right) Co-leader of Germany’s Green Party (Die Gruenen) Annalena Baerbock; German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz; and co-leader of Germany’s left wing party Die Linke (The Left) Janine Wissler attend a final televised debate, on September 23, 2021, in Berlin, days before the elections on September 26. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool/AFP)

But after a series of missteps by Baerbock, including a plagiarism scandal, the Greens are now polling well behind the two leading parties at around 17%.

While the chancellery may be out of reach for the party, it will likely have a role in Germany’s next government.

All bets are off on the composition of the next coalition, as the SPD and the conservatives could each try to cobble together a ruling majority if there is little to divide their score.

German Finance Minister, Vice-Chancellor and the Social Democratic SPD Party’s candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz holds a campaign meeting in his constituency in Potsdam, southwest of the German capital, on September 25, 2021, one day ahead of the German federal elections. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

On the eve of the polls, Scholz voiced his preference for a partnership with the Greens, calling on voters to give him the score needed to go with a two-way coalition.

If those numbers don’t add up, he may have to also rope in the liberal FDP, which is not a natural bedfellow with the SPD or the Greens.

Top candidates for the upcoming German general elections, (Left to right) Alice Weidel, parliamentary group co-leader of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party; leader of the German Free Democrats FDP party Christian Lindner; Bavaria’s State Premier and leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) Markus Soeder; and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party leader Armin Laschet attend a final televised debate, on September 23, 2021, in Berlin, days before the elections on September 26. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool/AFP)

Laschet has signaled he could still try to form a coalition even if the CDU-CSU does not come first, most likely calling on the FDP and the Greens for support.

But coming second would be a devastating blow for the party, which has dominated German politics since World War II and has never won less than 30% of the vote in federal elections.

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