Germany headed into a period of unpredictability Monday after a close election saw both main parties claim the right to lead Europe's biggest economy, leaving the question of who will succeed Angela Merkel wide open.
Partial results early Monday narrowly put the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in the lead at 25-26 percent, followed by Merkel's centre-right CDU-CSU bloc with a record-low score of around 24 percent. The Green party placed third with around 14 percent.
The SPD's chancellor candidate, Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and his rival Armin Laschet from Merkel's conservative camp each claimed a mandate to govern, setting off a scramble for potential coalition partners.
For a country used to political stability after 16 years of Merkel's steady leadership, the coming weeks and months promise to be a rocky ride.
Western allies are watching closely, aware that domestic preoccupations could blunt Germany's role on the international stage and create a leadership vacuum in Europe.
Laschet, 60, and Scholz, 63, both said their goal was to have a new government in place before Christmas.
Citizens "want a change in government," said Scholz, who ran an error-free campaign that cast him as a safe pair of hands, contrasting sharply with Laschet's series of gaffes.
"Scholz wants to be in power, so does Laschet. The poker game begins: who holds the better cards?" asked the best-selling Bild newspaper.
In the fractured political landscape of the post-Merkel era, the most likely outcome will be a three-way alliance, ending the post-war tradition of two-party coalition governments.
Scholz and Laschet will be looking to the Greens and the liberal, pro-business FDP party (11.5 percent) to make up the numbers needed for a parliamentary majority.
The kingmakers however are not natural bedfellows, diverging strongly on issues like tax hikes and public investment in climate protection.
Green chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock -- whose party hoped to do better with the climate crisis a top voter concern this year -- stayed vague about her preferred tie-up, saying only it was time for "a fresh start" in Germany.
FDP leader Christian Lindner suggested sitting down with the Greens first before starting exploratory talks with the two bigger parties to speed up the process.
"Europe is waiting for Germany to have a new government," he said on Sunday evening.
Lindner has signalled a preference for a "Jamaica" coalition with the CDU-CSU and the Greens -- named after those parties' black, green and yellow colours -- but has not ruled out a "traffic light" constellation with the SPD and the Greens.
Laschet also evoked a sense of urgency on Sunday, saying Germany's stint as president of the G7 club of rich nations next year meant the country needed to have a government in place capable of taking action.
"The new government must come into office soon," he said, "definitely before Christmas".
Neither the SPD nor the CDU-CSU want a repeat of the left-right "grand coalition" that has featured in three of Merkel's four governments.
And no party will team up with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose score fell to 10.5 percent from nearly 13 percent at the last election in 2017 as its pet topic, immigration, fell off the agenda.
The far-left Linke party also lost support and was teetering on the edge of the five-percent threshold needed to enter parliament.
Until the complex negotiations are settled, Merkel will remain in her role in a caretaker capacity.
Should the talks last beyond December 17, Merkel will overtake Helmut Kohl's record as Germany's longest-serving chancellor.
'Hurts a lot'
Merkel is still Germany's most popular politician, whose voluntary departure marks a watershed moment for the country of 83 million people.
Her legacy risks being tarnished however by the CDU-CSU's poor showing in Sunday's election, which saw the bloc fall below 30 percent for the first time in its seven-decade-long history.
In a painful illustration of the CDU's downfall, Merkel's own Baltic coast constituency -- which she had held since 1990 -- was taken by the Social Democrats.
At the CDU's headquarters on Sunday, Alfons Thesing, 84, put his finger on the problem.
"It hurts a lot that Merkel is no longer there," he told AFP.
Merkel, 67, will be likely be missed beyond Germany's borders too, having helped steer the European Union through years of turbulence that included a financial crisis, a migrant influx, Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.
While all Germany's main parties are pro-EU, none of her would-be successors can match her political gravitas.
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