Federal Returning Officer website said SPD won 25.7% of votes, followed by the CDU / CSU bloc which won 24.1%, and the Green Party with 14.8% of the vote, after a count of all 299 German “constituencies” or electoral districts.
The election ends Merkel’s 16-year tenure in top positions, but her successor will not be decided until a coalition deal is negotiated.
The SPD will now begin negotiations to form the new government, a process that could take weeks or even months. After Merkel’s election victory in September 2017, it took more than five months for a government to be formed.
Although the preliminary tally gives the SPD a small lead over its closest rivals, the results mark a significant improvement for the party which secured 20.5% of the vote in the last election in 2017.
As the votes were counted, party leader Olaf Scholz called the result “a great success”.
“Many citizens have put their cross next to the SPD because they want there to be a change of government and also because they want the next chancellor of this country to be called Olaf Scholz”, he said.
The 63-year-old politician has served as German vice-chancellor and finance minister in Merkel’s grand coalition government since 2018, earning him increased visibility as he navigated Germany’s economic response to the pandemic.
“Now we’ll wait for the final result, but then we’ll get to work. Thank you ! Said Scholz.
Applause and cheers from cheering party supporters interrupted him as he spoke.
Robin Fugmann, 20, a staunch supporter of Scholz, told CNN he was delighted with the results.
“It really is an amazing result, people believe in Olaf Scholz, people believe Armin Laschet really cannot run this country,” he said. “So we really have a mandate to lead a new government – I hope we will. And first of all, we’re going to celebrate because it’s a really amazing result.”
CDU leader: party “cannot be satisfied”
Earlier in the evening, the mood at CDU headquarters was depressed when the first exit polls emerged. They suggested that the CDU, together with its sister party, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria, were looking at the worst outcome in alliance history.
The party “cannot be satisfied with this result,” CDU leader Armin Laschet told supporters, while noting that the end result remained unclear.
“One can foresee that there could be a three-party government,” he said, as he said the party “would do everything to try to build a coalition”.
Laschet added that the CDU had “a mandate against a leftist government”.
The party had campaigned on a message of stability for the country after Merkel, seen as a stable pair of hands for the past 16 years, withdrew. But now he is coming to terms with what he himself called a bitter night of loss.
“When we look at how we lost from the last election, it’s bitter for us,” CDU secretary general Paul Ziemiak told CNN in an interview at party headquarters.
“But it’s also clear that after the numbers there is still no clear vision of who is ahead and exactly how,” he said.
“The question is who can form a stable government, form a coalition for the future, for this country? believe that a CDU / CSU coalition, the Greens and the FDP could do well, and that is what we will be talking about in the next few days. “
Peter Altmaier of the CDU, who served as Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, told CNN that the election result was “by no means a landslide victory for the opposition parties” and showed “a lot of confidence” in the CDU to govern.
Reflecting on the elections, he added: “The clear message to all the peoples of the world is that democracy in Germany is fairly stable, this was not the day of extremist parties – neither left nor right – it was the day of the conventional parties at the center of our democracy. “
Deborah Piraba, a 27-year-old law student and young Christian Union Democrat, told CNN at CDU headquarters that the results were “disappointing.”
“We have to consider that we are dating 16 years with Angela Merkel, of whom I am a big fan. I am already sad that she is leaving the office,” she said. “We call her Mutti (Mom), she knew how to talk to people and relate to people and she did so much for Germany. It made her so special comparing her to other politicians. Her sense of humor will also be missed. “
The Greens “wanted more”
Meanwhile, the crowd at the Green Party headquarters in Berlin applauded the reading of the first exit polls.
Later, preliminary results gave the party 14.8% of the vote.
“We have run a campaign like never before in this country – 24 hours a day, until last night, at the last second,” said Greens leader Annalena Baerbock, thanking party supporters.
Baerbock attributed his party’s success to young and new voters. “This momentum of market places, of so many [people] who joined our party in recent years, has led to this best historical result, ”she said.
But, Baerbock added, the party had “wanted more” and failed to do better in part because of mistakes it made during the campaign.
The main AfD candidate for chancellor, Alice Weidel, showed courage after projected election results showed support for the far-right party fell 2.6% from 2017.
“We are in the double digits, we have been able to assert ourselves,” she said, according to Reuters. “This claim that we left Parliament after a legislature has totally failed and we are very, very happy.”
Analyst: “Tall order” to bring the parties together
The outgoing government remains in office as an interim government until it is replaced by a new government. Merkel, 67, will then step down and the new Chancellor will take the reins.
Even if the end result changes the distribution of votes, the fact is that “after 16 years in power, nearly 76% of Germans did not vote” for Merkel’s party, CNN commentator Dominic Thomas said.
Neither the CDU nor the SPD will have a real opportunity to create a coalition, he added.
“If the SPD is leading the way, the only way to go will be to talk to three parties that will most likely involve the Greens and the FDP. And it is a tall order to try to bring everything together,” he said.
Exit polls indicate a move towards the center and center-left, he added, reflecting the concerns of a younger electorate.
“It is clear that the momentum is directed more towards issues that concern social welfare, green policy,” Thomas said.
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen, Salma Abdelaziz, Nadine Schmidt and Stephanie Halasz have reported from Berlin and Laura Smith-Spark has written from London. CNN’s Nina Avramova, Claudia Otto, Inke Kappeler, Sebastian Shukla and Aditi Sangal contributed to this report.