Berlin, Germany – Warm temperatures and clear blue skies greeted voters across Germany as tens of millions of voters headed to polling stations on Sunday to determine the country’s next government and the chancellor who will lead it.
The election is the first since the county reunified in 1990 that Angela Merkel will not run in as a candidate. After 16 years in the chancellery, the woman who became the defining European leader of her era will step aside once a new government is formed.
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German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged citizens to vote and make their voices heard.
“Our country faces a political transition,” he wrote in an article penned for tabloid Bild am Sonntag. “Let’s vote together – for a strong democracy and a good future.”
Opinion polls narrowed in the final week but the Social Democrats (SPD) still hold a slight lead over Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), making it the first real contest in many years.
“Ever since 2005, we knew that the Christian Democrats would end up as the strongest party and that nobody else would be able or willing to form a government against them,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute.
Two final surveys published on Friday put the SPD ahead of the CDU-CSU alliance by 26 points to 25 and 25 to 22, respectively.
In the state of North Rhine Westphalia, polling stations prepared for voters who refuse to wear masks to protect against COVID-19. One in Cologne will place ballot boxes outdoors, while in Aachen, the room will be briefly emptied for a refuser to cast their vote, before being aired out and disinfected.
In the capital, voters will have to navigate widespread road closures for the Berlin Marathon, where about 25,000 athletes are to take part.
Voting ends at 16:00 GMT with exit polls to be released after that and a more comprehensive picture of the results expected to emerge by Monday.
SPD’s Olaf Scholz – the most popular of the chancellor candidates – closed his campaign in his constituency of Potsdam on Saturday, repeating the party’s key social policies – including a 12 euro ($14) hourly minimum wage, no rise in the pension age and tackling a shortage of nursing staff.
He reiterated his desire to govern with the Greens. “This is my favourite coalition,” he said.
In the final days before the vote, Merkel has swung strongly behind her successor Armin Laschet, who has run a gaffe-prone and lacklustre race. At a final rally in Laschet’s home town of Aachen on Saturday, Merkel said the election is “about keeping Germany stable”.
The conservatives have been warning that Germany risks a “slide to the left” under Scholz, who has refused to fully rule out an unlikely alliance with the socialist Left party.
After marching alongside 100,000 protesters at a Fridays for Future demonstration, Annalena Baerbock, the candidate for the Green Party, spent the final day of the campaign in Potsdam, where she is also a representative.
She told her constituents that a genuine renewal for Germany can only happen with a strong Green Party, and that her focus was still on the campaign “until the last minute”, not coalition possibilities.
Baerbock fumbled a once-promising bid for chancellor amid allegations of plagiarism and career padding, but her party is expected to double its vote share and enter the next government as a junior partner.
Political ‘volatility and fragmentation’
Barbara, 63, a lawyer from Stuttgart, said she would vote for the CDU, and the members of her family have split their votes to support a Green-conservative coalition.
“The most important point is climate,” she told Al Jazeera. “But climate [protection] is only possible with an economy that works.”
A fan of Merkel, she was unenthused by Laschet and suspicious that the centrist Scholz would be pulled left by his party.
“After 16 years, a fresh start is good. But I was happy with her because she brought our country through some crises with appropriate calm, and has a very good reputation in Europe and across the world.”
Authorities in the western city of Wuppertal urged voters in one neighbourhood to stay at home until an unexploded World War II bomb, which was discovered Sunday within 500 metres of five polling stations, was defused.
Piet, 30, a student and graphic designer who lives in Berlin’s Wedding district, said he would switch from the SPD to the Greens.
“I was quite OK with how the current coalition dealt with a lot of past crises, like the refugee crisis, but recently they are too slow when it comes to actual change,” he said.
Tackling climate change and upgrading Germany’s backwards digital infrastructure are priorities for him, and progress has been too leisurely on both. He would like the SPD to lead the next government.
“I would prefer [Scholz] because he can move more into a changing future than Laschet can,” he added.
Regardless of the final tally, one thing has become clear: the days of Volkspartei, or broad tent parties that can command more than 40 percent of the vote, have become a thing of the past – which may have long-term implications for Germany’s political stability.
A rare three-party coalition will almost certainly be required to form a majority, and negotiations are expected to take months as parties hammer out differences on foreign policy, taxation and climate protection.
“We’re slowly moving towards a situation that’s more like the Dutch party system,” said Benner, of the Global Public Policy Institute.
“I think you can, you can assume that we’ve just seen the start of political volatility and fragmentation in Germany.”