The race to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel is resting on a knife’s edge, with the first projections based on ballots counted showing the Social Democratic Party in the lead by a percentage point or less over the Christian Democratic Union.
With final results still hours away, the race was too close to call.
Regardless of the outcome, the winner will still need to team up with other parties to form a government. And in the complex equation that can be required in Germany, it is possible that if the winning party fails to get others on board, the one that placed second could wind up leading the country.
Earlier in the evening, party leaders began reacting as television news channels broadcast the exit polls, with each of the two leading candidates claiming his right to build the next government and occupy the chancellery.
Cheers erupted at the Social Democratic Party’s headquarters when the exit polls were announced. 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.
With many more people voting by mail than usual because of the pandemic, organizers were cautioning that it might take longer than it typically would to count the ballots.
Each of the leading parties, which have governed together in a coalition under Ms. Merkel for 12 of the past 16 years, appeared to fall short of the 30 percent mark. Such a result would represent the first time that her party, the Christian Democratic Union, had fallen that low since its founding in 1945.
Nevertheless, the conservative candidate, Amin 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.
“For this reason, we will do everything in our power to build a government led by the conservatives because Germany needs a future coalition that will modernize our country,” Mr. Laschet told the appreciative crowd.
The progressive, environmentalist Greens appeared to make significant gains compared with the election in 2017, but to fall short of having a viable shot at the chancellery. That positions the Greens, as well as the business-friendly Free Democrats, to join the next government. They will play a key role in deciding what the next German government could look like, depending on which of the larger parties they would like to govern with.
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.
Sixty million people are eligible to vote in the German national election on Sunday. There won’t be a new government that night, or the next day — it could take the rival parties weeks or even months to settle on a coalition with a parliamentary majority. But the ballots are tallied quickly, and the new shape of Germany’s political landscape is likely to be visible within hours.
Here’s what Election Day will look like, and what to watch for.
8 a.m.: Polls opened. Candidates are not allowed to campaign on this day, but some may be seen casting ballots.
6 p.m. (noon Eastern): Polling stations close. Not long after, the first exit polls should be available. These polls can be within percentage points of the final result. But this year, because the race is tight, it could be a few more hours before a clear picture emerges. Mail-in ballots, which have been part of Germany’s voting system since 1957, are expected to play an outsized role given the pandemic, as they did in the U.S. presidential election. Only mail-in ballots received by 6 p.m. Sunday will be counted.
Around 6:15 p.m.: The first projections based on actual counted ballots will be released. These get updated throughout the evening until a fairly clear picture emerges of which party is winning.
8:15 p.m.: The heads of all the major parties meet to discuss successes and failures of their campaigns, and they will signal who they would be willing to work with in a coalition government. This discussion is called the “Elephant Round,” and it lasts an hour.
8 p.m. to midnight: Nearly all votes should be counted.
Early, early morning: The election authorities release something they call the official temporary results. These usually come between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. — though during the last national election, they didn’t arrive until 5:30 a.m.
They call it the “Elephant Round”: After the polls close and as the votes are being counted on Sunday, all of the heavy-hitting party leaders sit down together, live on public television, to discuss the outcome that is shaping up.
Those who are winning will exclaim, those who are losing will explain and smaller parties will jockey for position in a new government, cozying up to potential partners or coolly shunning others.
For Germans watching at home, the event, which is scheduled to start at 8:15, is a chance to read the tea leaves about their future government.
For the politicians sitting in the brightly lit studio, the round offers them a chance to try to set the tone for the weeks of negotiations that are expected to follow, given that none of the parties running are expected to win enough votes to allow them to govern alone. Leaders of the smaller parties use the opportunity to make their first demands and draw their lines in the sand.
It is a chance for grandstanding and, occasionally, for grinning. That happened famously in 2005, when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats lost by a small margin to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. He nevertheless tried to claim victory, on grounds that his party had done much better than predicted in the polls. “We’ve won,” Ms. Merkel replied with a controlled smile. “And after a couple of days of reflection, the Social Democrats will realize that, too.”
This year, fate may be in the favor of the Social Democrats. Ms. Merkel is stepping aside after 16 years in power and Olaf Scholz, her vice chancellor and finance minister, led the polls in the final weeks of the race. His campaign portrayed him as coolheaded and in control. Come Sunday night, Germans will be watching to see whether he can keep that up when faced with the “elephants.”
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.
Voter turnout in Germany — as a measure of the people visiting polling stations — was down on Sunday when compared to the last election in 2017, officials said. But the number is misleading. Participation could be extraordinarily high once mail-in ballots are counted.
By 2 p.m., 37 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots in person, election officials said, down from 41 percent during the same period in 2017. But at least 40 percent of Germans were expected to vote by mail because of the coronavirus, potentially pushing turnout above the 76 percent recorded in 2017.
Despite the decrease in in-person voting nationwide, there were long lines at polling stations in Berlin, where voters were also choosing candidates for the local government. Some polling places reportedly ran out of ballots and had trouble getting more because many streets were closed because of the Berlin Marathon, which was expected to attract almost 30,000 participants.
With Chancellor Angela Merkel poised to step down after 16 years in office, the stakes are high. Polls showed a close race between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democratic Union, Ms. Merkel’s party, which could encourage turnout. Voting sites remain open until 6 p.m. local time.
The high number of mail-in ballots is not expected to delay the results in the same way that occurred in the United States presidential elections last year, when close races in some states were not decided for days. German officials will only count mail-in ballots that had arrived by Sunday, and should have a good idea by midnight at the latest of which party prevailed.
The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which shocked the nation four years ago by becoming the first far-right party to win seats in Parliament since World War II, suffered a slippage in support Sunday but also solidified its status as a permanent force to be reckoned with.
“We are here to stay, and we showed that today,” Tino Chrupalla, co-leader of the party, told party members gathered on the outskirts of Berlin.
Early results showed the party with 11 percent of the votes, down from almost 13 percent in 2017. The AfD is likely to no longer be the largest opposition party in Parliament.
If those results hold in final tallies, that will still give the AfD a sizable delegation in Parliament, and the vote showed that the party has a core constituency even when immigration, its main issue, was not a major topic in the campaign.
At the AfD’s post-election gathering Sunday, activists took comfort in the poor showing by the Christian Democrats, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who compete with the AfD for conservative voters. “The C.D.U. got what they deserved,” said Alexander Gauland, the leader of the AfD delegation in Parliament.
Alternative for Germany held its election party at an event space 45 minutes by subway from central Berlin, perhaps in an effort to discourage counter-demonstrators. Several dozen protesters gathered across the street from the AfD event, holding signs accusing the party of being fascist. But they were probably outnumbered by the police.
As AfD activists ate potato salad and wurst from a buffet, the prevailing view seemed to be that the party’s candidates would have done better if the media and the other parties hadn’t ganged up on them.
“We had to campaign against everyone,” said Daniela Öeynhausen, who appears to have won a seat in the state Parliament of Brandenburg. “It was still an impressive two-digit result considering the unfair attacks.”
Julian Potthast, who said he believed he had won election to a district council in a neighborhood of Berlin, portrayed the party — whose rhetoric has been linked to attacks on immigrants or people perceived as non-Germans — as itself the victim of violence. He said that his vehicle was vandalized and that graffiti was sprayed on his home.
The party was unfairly portrayed as fascist, he complained. But he also conceded the party might have made mistakes, for example in its stance against restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus. “It’s not as good as we hoped,” Mr. Potthast said. “We have to look very carefully at why we lost votes.”
In Germany, political parties name their candidates for chancellor before campaigning begins, and most of the focus falls on the selections who have a realistic chance of winning.
Traditionally, those have been the candidates of the center-right Christian Democrats (Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party) and those of the center-left Social Democrats. For the first time this year, the candidate for the environmentalist Greens is viewed as having a real shot at the chancellery.
Here are the leading hopefuls:
Current position: Co-leader of the Green Party
About her: Ms. Baerbock aims to shake up the status quo. She is challenging Germans to deal with the crises that Ms. Merkel has left largely unattended: decarbonizing the powerful automobile sector; weaning the country off coal; and rethinking trade relationships with strategic competitors like China and Russia.
“This election is not just about what happens in the next four years, it’s about our future,” Ms. Baerbock told a crowd in Bochum, a western German town, this summer.
Ms. Baerbock, who has not a position in government, has started off on a promising note, but her campaign has struggled as she has been a frequent target of disinformation efforts. She has also been accused by rivals of plagiarism and of padding her résumé, and her Green Party has been faulted for not being able to capitalize on environmental issues in the wake of flooding this summer.
Even so, there is almost no combination of parties imaginable in the next coalition government that does not include the Greens. That makes Ms. Baerbock, her ideas and her party of central importance to Germany’s future.
“We need change to preserve what we love and cherish,” she told the crowd in Bochum. “Change requires courage, and change is on the ballot on Sept. 26.”
Current position: Leader of the Christian Democratic Union; governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia
About him: Mr. Laschet has run North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, since 2017 — a credential he has long said qualifies him to run the country. As the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Ms. Merkel’s party, he should have been the natural heir to the chancellor. But his gaffe-prone campaign has struggled to find traction among Germans. Extraordinary flooding this summer in the region he runs exposed flaws in his environmental policies and disaster management. He was caught on camera laughing during a solemn ceremony for flood victims.
But Mr. Laschet is known for comebacks, and for surviving blunders.
Among his influences is his faith. At a time when more and more Germans are quitting the Roman Catholic Church, Mr. Laschet is a proud member. Another influence is Aachen, Germany’s westernmost city, where he was born and raised. Growing up in a place with deep ties to Belgium and the Netherlands, Mr. Laschet has been integrated into the larger European ideal all of his life.
Current position: Vice chancellor of Germany and federal finance minister
About him: When Olaf Scholz asked his fellow Social Democrats to nominate him as their candidate for chancellor, some inside his own camp publicly wondered if the party should bother fielding a candidate at all. What a difference a few months make. Today, Mr. Scholz and his once moribund party have unexpectedly become the favorites to lead the next government.
During the campaign, Mr. Scholz has managed to turn what has long been the main liability for his party — co-governing as junior partners of Ms. Merkel’s conservatives — into his main asset: In an election with no incumbent, he has styled himself as the incumbent — or as the closest thing there is to Ms. Merkel.
“Germans aren’t a very change-friendly people, and the departure of Angela Merkel is basically enough change for them,” said Christiane Hoffmann, a prominent political observer and journalist. “They’re most likely to trust the candidate who promises that the transition is as easy as possible.”
He has been photographed making the chancellor’s hallmark diamond-shaped hand gesture — the “Merkel rhombus” — and used the female form of the German word for chancellor on a campaign poster to convince Germans that he could continue Ms. Merkel’s work even though he is a man.
The symbolism isn’t subtle, but it is working — so well in fact that the chancellor herself has felt compelled to push back on it — most recently in what might be her last speech in the Bundestag.
Chancellor Angela Merkel will not disappear Sunday night after the votes are counted.
Until a new government is formed, a process that can take several weeks to several months, she will remain in office as head of the acting, or caretaker, 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.
Ms. Merkel 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 has seen the deadly 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.
But, after the last election, in 2017, it took 171 days — or nearly six months — to form a new government, which means she is likely to be around for a while.
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 some 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.”
BERLIN — 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 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.
BERLIN — German election officials are expecting mail-in ballots to break records in Sunday’s federal election. At least 40 percent and possibly a majority of ballots will arrive by mail, according to Georg Thiel, head of the agency in charge of counting the votes.
Although actual tallies will only be known after polls close, the authorities have seen requests for mail-in ballots grow this year as the pandemic fuels anxiety about crowded polling stations.
Mail-in balloting has been permitted in Germany for more than 60 years. When it was first allowed, in the 1957 election, only 5 percent of voters used the option; during the last federal election in 2017, 29 percent chose to mail in their choice. Vote counters are set up to handle a doubling of that number — nearly 60 percent — this year, Mr. Thiel said.
The postal service in Germany is one of the quickest and most reliable in the world, with letters usually delivered within a day to anywhere in the country. Still, an official warned voters last week that if they wanted their ballot to be counted, it should be in the mail by Thursday; only ballots received by 6 p.m. on Sunday — when polls close — will be tallied.
The populist Alternative for Germany party, segments of which have parroted former President Donald J. Trump’s claims of manipulated mail-in ballots in the U.S., has used slogans like “the mailbox is not a ballot box” to try to dissuade voters from using the option. But those concerns do not appear to have resonated with the electorate.
BERLIN — In the prelude to Sunday’s federal election, one of the strangest questions faced by Armin Laschet, governor of Germany’s most populous state and one of the front-runners, was what his dragon name would be.
Mr. Laschet, apparently nonplused, exhaled loudly. “No idea,” he answered. “What kind of names do dragons have?”
As the vote neared and the competition to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel increasingly turned on the candidates’ characters, the contenders submitted themselves to an exhaustive schedule of interviews, debates and town hall-style discussions — including some inquiries from children. In fact, many of the most memorable moments were prompted by the younger questioners.
On one program, “Can You Do the Chancellery,” each of the main candidates was given 30 minutes to teach a classroom of 8- to 13-year-olds. During their separate sessions leading the class, candidates answered questions and had to explain complex themes (like global taxation or global warming) on a whiteboard.
Pauline and Romeo, the children who asked Mr. Laschet about dragons, were part of a segment on a late-night talk show. The two, both 11, threw Mr. Laschet no softballs. Among other things, they asked if he was planning on quitting smoking (a question he dodged, though he did offer that he did not inhale) and about a far-right candidate in his party.
When the 10-minute segment aired this month, Mr. Laschet was widely panned for his performance. (Two other candidates, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, survived Pauline and Romeo without making any headlines.)
But Mr. Laschet was not the only one to struggle. Tino Chrupalla, co-chairman of the populist Alternative for Germany party, also had a tough time with a younger interrogator.
In a publicly broadcast interview, Mr. Chrupalla told a teenage reporter called Alexander that his party wanted to see more German poems and songs being taught in classrooms. But when Alexander asked him what his favorite German poem was, Mr. Chrupalla struggled to name one.