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(C) Reuters. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and North Rhine-Westphalia State Premier, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party leader and candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet, attend a rally ahead of the September 26 general election, in Aachen, Germany, September 2

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By Thomas Escritt and Paul Carrel

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s CDU/CSU conservatives and their Social Democrat rivals were virtually tied in Sunday’s national election, exit polls showed, leaving open which of them will lead the next government as Angela Merkel prepares to stand down after 16 years in power.

The CDU/CSU bloc won 25% of the vote, their weakest result in a post-war federal election and on a par with the centre-left Social Democrat (SPD), the infratest poll for broadcaster ARD showed. A Forschungsgruppe Wahlen poll for broadcaster ZDF put the SPD and its chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz on 26% and the CDU/CSU on 24%.

“The SPD is back. We are where we belong,” SPD Secretary General Lars Klingbeil said shortly after first exit polls. He said the polls showed the SPD and its chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz had the mandate to govern.

CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak told ARD after the publication of their poll: “That hurts”.

Attention will now shift to informal discussions – likely with the Greens, on 15%, and liberal Free Democrats (FDP), on 11% – followed by more formal coalition negotiations https://reut.rs/2ZeqYw3, which could take months, leaving Merkel in charge in a caretaker role.

“This will be all about striking deals among multiple players, and several options seem possible,” said Carsten Nickel at Teneo, a political risk consultancy. “The talks could take some time.”

Merkel has been in power since 2005 but plans to step down after the election, making the vote an era-changing event https://reut.rs/3hfDamG to set the future course of Europe’s largest economy.

The election pitted Armin Laschet, of the CDU, against Scholz https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/german-leadership-race-boring-olaf-bets-craving-stability-2021-09-21, the finance minister in Merkel’s “grand coalition” who won all three televised debates between the leading candidates.

After a domestic-focused election campaign, Berlin’s allies in Europe and beyond may have to wait for months before they can see whether the new German government is ready to engage on foreign issues to the extent they would like.

A row between Washington and Paris over a deal for Australia to buy U.S. instead of French submarines has put Germany in an awkward spot between allies, but also gives Berlin the chance to help heal relations and rethink their common stance on China.

On economic policy, French President Emmanuel Macron is eager to forge a common European fiscal policy, which the Greens support but the CDU/CSU and FDP reject. The Greens also want “a massive expansion offensive for renewables https://reut.rs/2T1UKS3”.

Whatever coalition formation ends up in power, Germany’s friends can at least take heart from an election campaign in which moderate centrism prevailed, and the populism that has taken hold in other European countries failed to break through.

The ARD exit poll showed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on track for 11%, below the 12.6% it got four years ago, and all other parties have ruled out a coalition with it.

German conservatives, Social Democrats tied in vote to decide Merkel successor

German conservatives, Social Democrats tied in vote to decide Merkel successor