Social Democrats narrowly beat Merkel's bloc in German vote

Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor after addressing his supporters after German parliament election at the Social Democratic Party, SPD, headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
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Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor after addressing his supporters after German parliament election at the Social Democratic Party, SPD, headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Credit: Michael Sohn

Credit: Michael Sohn

The center-left Social Democrats have won the biggest share of the vote in Germany's national election

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's center-left Social Democrats won the biggest share of the vote in a national election Sunday, narrowly beating outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel 's center-right Union bloc in a closely fought race that will determine who succeeds the long-time leader at the helm of Europe's biggest economy.

The Social Democrats’ candidate Olaf Scholz, the outgoing vice chancellor and finance minister who pulled his party out of a years-long slump, said the outcome was “a very clear mandate to ensure now that we put together a good, pragmatic government for Germany.”

Despite getting its worst-ever result in a federal contest, the Union bloc said it too would reach out to smaller parties to discuss forming a government, while Merkel stays on in a caretaker role until a successor is sworn in.

Election officials said early Monday that a count of all 299 constituencies showed the Social Democrats received 25.9% of the vote, ahead of 24.1% for the Union bloc. No winning party in a German national election had previously taken less than 31% of the vote.

Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state who outmaneuvered a more popular rival to secure the nomination of Merkel’s Union bloc, had struggled to motivate the party’s base and suffered a series of missteps.

“Of course, this is a loss of votes that isn't pretty,” Laschet said of results that looked set to undercut by some measure the Union's previous worst showing of 31% in 1949. But he added that with Merkel departing after 16 years in power, “no one had an incumbent bonus in this election.”

Laschet told supporters that “we will do everything we can to form a government under the Union’s leadership, because Germany now needs a coalition for the future that modernizes our country.”

Both Laschet and Scholz will be courting the same two parties: the environmentalist Greens, who were third with 14.8%; and the pro-business Free Democrats, who took 11.5% of the vote.

The Greens traditionally lean toward the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats toward the Union, but neither ruled out going the other way.

The other option was a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the Union and Social Democrats that has run Germany for 12 of Merkel's 16 years in power, but there was little obvious appetite for that after years of government squabbling.

“Everyone thinks that ... this ‘grand coalition’ isn't promising for the future, regardless of who is No. 1 and No. 2,” Laschet said. “We need a real new beginning.”

The Free Democrats' leader, Christian Lindner, appeared keen to govern, suggesting that his party and the Greens should make the first move.

“About 75% of Germans didn't vote for the next chancellor's party,” Lindner said in a post-election debate with all parties' leaders on public broadcaster ZDF. “So it might be advisable ... that the Greens and Free Democrats first speak to each other to structure everything that follows.”

Baerbock insisted that “the climate crisis ... is the leading issue of the next government, and that is for us the basis for any talks ... even if we aren't totally satisfied with our result.”

While the Greens improved their support from the last election in 2017, they had higher expectations for Sunday's vote.

The Left Party was projected to win only 4.9% of the vote and risked being kicked out of parliament entirely. The far-right Alternative for Germany — which no one else wants to work with — received 10.3%. This was about 2 percentage points less than in 2017, when it first entered parliament.

Due to Germany’s complicated electoral system, a full breakdown of the result by seats in parliament was still pending.

Merkel, who has won plaudits for steering Germany through several major crises, won't be an easy leader to follow. Her successor will have to oversee the country's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany so far has weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programs.

Germany's leading parties have significant differences when it comes to taxation and tackling climate change.

Foreign policy didn't feature much in the campaign, although the Greens favor a tougher stance toward China and Russia.

Whichever parties form the next German government, the Free Democrats' Lindner said it was “good news” that it would have a majority with centrist parties.

“All of those in Europe and beyond who were worried about Germany's stability can now see: Germany will be stable in any case,” he said.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez sent early congratulations to Scholz.

“Spain and Germany will continue to work together for a stronger Europe and for a fair and green recovery that leaves no one behind,” he wrote on Twitter.

In two regional elections also held Sunday, the Social Democrats looked set to defend the post of Berlin mayor that they have held for two decades. The party was also on course for a strong win in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania.

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

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Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber and Karin Laub contributed to this report.

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Follow AP's coverage of Germany's election at https://apnews.com/hub/germany-election

Chancellor Angela Merkel stands next to Governor Armin Laschet, right, the top CDU candidate after the German parliament elections at the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, party's headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe's biggest economy. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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Chancellor Angela Merkel stands next to Governor Armin Laschet, right, the top CDU candidate after the German parliament elections at the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, party's headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe's biggest economy. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Credit: Martin Meissner

Credit: Martin Meissner

Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, leaves after attending a TV broadcast on the parliamentary elections in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc in Germany's parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
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Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, leaves after attending a TV broadcast on the parliamentary elections in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc in Germany's parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Credit: Michael Probst

Credit: Michael Probst

Members and supporters of the Green Party (Die Gruenen) gesture at the Green Party event after the close of polling stations during German parliament election, in Berlin, Germany, on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
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Members and supporters of the Green Party (Die Gruenen) gesture at the Green Party event after the close of polling stations during German parliament election, in Berlin, Germany, on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Credit: Matthias Schrader

Credit: Matthias Schrader

Supporters react after German parliament election at the Social Democratic Party, SPD, headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)
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Supporters react after German parliament election at the Social Democratic Party, SPD, headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Credit: Lisa Leutner

Credit: Lisa Leutner

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the Konrad Adenauer House in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy.  (Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the Konrad Adenauer House in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy. (Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)

Credit: Michael Kappeler

Credit: Michael Kappeler

People cast their ballots in a polling station set at the Museum Moderne Galerie in Saarbruecken, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy. (Oliver Dietze/dpa via AP)
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People cast their ballots in a polling station set at the Museum Moderne Galerie in Saarbruecken, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy. (Oliver Dietze/dpa via AP)

Credit: Oliver Dietze

Credit: Oliver Dietze

Candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock arrives to cast her vote in Postdam, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy. (Jan Woitas/dpa via AP)
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Candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock arrives to cast her vote in Postdam, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy. (Jan Woitas/dpa via AP)

Credit: Jan Woitas

Credit: Jan Woitas

Armin Laschet, Christian Union parties candidate for Chancellery and Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, casts his ballot for the German parliament election in Aachen, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy. (Thilo Schmuelgen/Pool via AP)
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Armin Laschet, Christian Union parties candidate for Chancellery and Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, casts his ballot for the German parliament election in Aachen, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy. (Thilo Schmuelgen/Pool via AP)

Credit: Thilo Schmuelgen

Credit: Thilo Schmuelgen

Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, waves at the election party at Willy Brandt House in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc in Germany’s parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Britta Pedersen/dpa via AP)
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Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, waves at the election party at Willy Brandt House in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc in Germany’s parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Britta Pedersen/dpa via AP)

Credit: Britta Pedersen

Credit: Britta Pedersen

Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, waves during the election party at Willy Brandt House in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc in Germany’s parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Wolfgang Kumm/dpa via AP)
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Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, waves during the election party at Willy Brandt House in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc in Germany’s parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Wolfgang Kumm/dpa via AP)

Credit: Wolfgang Kumm

Credit: Wolfgang Kumm

Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) waves to his supporters after German parliament election at the party's headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)
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Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) waves to his supporters after German parliament election at the party's headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Credit: Lisa Leutner

Credit: Lisa Leutner

Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, gives the thumb-up sign as he stands next to his wife Britta Ernst during the election party at Willy Brandt House in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc in Germany’s parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Wolfgang Kumm/dpa via AP)
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Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, gives the thumb-up sign as he stands next to his wife Britta Ernst during the election party at Willy Brandt House in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc in Germany’s parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Wolfgang Kumm/dpa via AP)

Credit: Wolfgang Kumm

Credit: Wolfgang Kumm

Armin Laschet, Federal Chairman of the CDU, top candidate of his party for Chancellor grimaces as he comments on the outcome of the Bundestag elections, at the Konrad Adenauer House, Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc in Germany's parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Michael Kappeler/DPA via AP)
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Armin Laschet, Federal Chairman of the CDU, top candidate of his party for Chancellor grimaces as he comments on the outcome of the Bundestag elections, at the Konrad Adenauer House, Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc in Germany's parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Michael Kappeler/DPA via AP)

Credit: Michael Kappeler

Credit: Michael Kappeler

Armin Laschet, the top CDU candidate, adjusts his glasses during his speech after the German parliament elections at the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, party's headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe's biggest economy.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
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Armin Laschet, the top CDU candidate, adjusts his glasses during his speech after the German parliament elections at the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, party's headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe's biggest economy.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Credit: Markus Schreiber

Credit: Markus Schreiber

Armin Laschet, the top CDU candidate adjust his glasses during his speech, after the German parliament elections at the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, party's headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe's biggest economy. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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Armin Laschet, the top CDU candidate adjust his glasses during his speech, after the German parliament elections at the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, party's headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German voters are choosing a new parliament in an election that will determine who succeeds Chancellor Angela Merkel after her 16 years at the helm of Europe's biggest economy. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Credit: Martin Meissner

Credit: Martin Meissner

Franziska Giffey, top candidate of the Berlin SPD for the office of Governing Mayor, takes the stage at the election party of the Berlin SPD in Kreuzberg, Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (Bernd Von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP)
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Franziska Giffey, top candidate of the Berlin SPD for the office of Governing Mayor, takes the stage at the election party of the Berlin SPD in Kreuzberg, Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (Bernd Von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP)

Credit: Bernd von Jutrczenka

Credit: Bernd von Jutrczenka

Manuela Schwesig (SPD), the Minister President of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the SPD's top candidate for the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, reacts at the SPD election party in  Schwerin, Germany Sunday Sept. 26, 2021. (Jens Büttner/DPA via AP)
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Manuela Schwesig (SPD), the Minister President of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the SPD's top candidate for the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, reacts at the SPD election party in Schwerin, Germany Sunday Sept. 26, 2021. (Jens Büttner/DPA via AP)

Credit: Jens Büttner

Credit: Jens Büttner

From left: the AfD's top candidate Alice Weidel, FDP's top candidate Christian Lindner, CSU leader Markus Soeder, Armin Laschet of the CDU, the CDU/CSU's candidate for chancellor, moderators Rainald Becker and Peter Frey, Annalena Baerbock, candidate for chancellor of the Green Party, Olaf Scholz, candidate for chancellor of the SPD, as well as the chairwoman of the party Die Linke, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, talk about the Bundestag election in an election studio of ZDF at the "Berliner Runde" Sunday Sept. 2021 in Berlin. Projections show Germany’s center-left Social Democrats locked in a very close race with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right bloc, which is heading toward its worst-ever result in the country’s parliamentary election. (Sebastian Gollnow/Pool via AP)
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From left: the AfD's top candidate Alice Weidel, FDP's top candidate Christian Lindner, CSU leader Markus Soeder, Armin Laschet of the CDU, the CDU/CSU's candidate for chancellor, moderators Rainald Becker and Peter Frey, Annalena Baerbock, candidate for chancellor of the Green Party, Olaf Scholz, candidate for chancellor of the SPD, as well as the chairwoman of the party Die Linke, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, talk about the Bundestag election in an election studio of ZDF at the "Berliner Runde" Sunday Sept. 2021 in Berlin. Projections show Germany’s center-left Social Democrats locked in a very close race with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right bloc, which is heading toward its worst-ever result in the country’s parliamentary election. (Sebastian Gollnow/Pool via AP)

Credit: Sebastian Gollnow

Credit: Sebastian Gollnow

Annalena Baerbock, left, candidate for chancellor and federal leader of the Green party and Robert Habeck, federal leader, take the stage at the election party in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc in Germany’s parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power.  (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP)
Caption
Annalena Baerbock, left, candidate for chancellor and federal leader of the Green party and Robert Habeck, federal leader, take the stage at the election party in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc in Germany’s parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP)

Credit: Kay Nietfeld

Credit: Kay Nietfeld