BERLIN — Germany’s general election was too close to call after polls closed Sunday, with one projection giving the Social Democrats a slight lead over the conservatives and another showing the two camps in a dead heat.
Public TV channel ZDF put the Social Democrats (SPD) on 26 percent and the conservative CDU/CSU bloc of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel on 24 percent. The two parties were both on 25 percent in a projection for another public broadcaster, ARD.
The figures indicated that it could take hours for a clear picture to emerge on who has the best chance of succeeding Merkel as chancellor — the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz or the CDU/CSU’s Armin Laschet.
The Greens came third in both projections, on around 15 percent of the vote, and the Free Democrats (FDP) were in fourth with 11 percent in one forecast and 12 percent in another.
If the projections are borne out by the election results, building a new coalition is likely to prove a fraught process because neither of the two largest parties can boast a clear mandate. The SPD is likely to argue that the conservatives, who finished well below the 33 percent they won in 2017, have effectively been voted out of power.
Yet under Germany’s electoral system, such considerations are largely irrelevant. Unlike in many other European countries, the parties don’t need a mandate from the head of state to attempt to build a coalition, a tap that usually goes to the party that finishes first. Instead, it’s up to the parties themselves to form a government.
That means it could come down to the negotiating acumen of the leaders of the SPD and Christian Democrats in trying to convince the two smaller parties to join them.
During the campaign, the FDP, a pro-business party, made clear that it would prefer to join a conservative-led coalition, even if the CDU/CSU placed second, while the Greens said they favored an alliance with the Social Democrats.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party was projected to win 10 or 11 percent of the vote.
The Left, a far-left movement rooted in East Germany’s communist party, won 5 percent, according to the initial projections, placing on the cusp of missing the threshold for entry into parliament.
If the party falls below 5 percent, it will be out. That would remove even the slim possibility of a leftist alliance between the SPD, Greens and Left, considerably narrowing the SPD’s options in the upcoming coalition talks.
Both the SPD and the conservatives have said they don’t want to renew their current coalition, which has governed Germany for the past eight years.
That leaves two main options: an SPD-led government with the Greens and FDP or a conservative-led coalition with the two smaller parties.
This article has been updated. Follow the German election results on POLITICO’s live blog.