BERLIN — German voters went to the polls Sunday in a pivotal election that will pave the way for a new leader after 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel and shape both the country’s politics and wider European affairs.
As polling stations opened at 8 a.m. local time, the race was simply too close to call. With the 67-year-old Merkel deciding not to run for reelection after a decade and a half as chancellor, the election is the first in Germany’s postwar history in which an incumbent isn’t in the mix.
“It’s definitely a nail-biter of an election,” said Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office. She said that it was a “change election” not only for Germany but also for Europe and the entire world, due to the extent Merkel’s influence on international politics.
The chancellery appears within the reach of two men, both in their 60s, who represent the country’s two most established parties.
Olaf Scholz, 63, from the center-left Social Democrats, or SPD, has tried to present himself as Merkel’s natural successor after his role in her latest coalition cabinet as finance minister and vice chancellor. He might have been able to win over Germans who are looking for a more steady hand with his dry, technocratic style of politics.
Armin Laschet, 60, is the candidate for Merkel’s Christian Democrats and its smaller sister party. Laschet, the leader of Germany’s West Rhine-Westphalia state in Germany’s west, has been a gaffe-prone candidate and is not popular with voters. He has the support of more centr-right voters.
Laschet has edged closer to Scholz in the polls in recent days. The Forsa polling firm on Friday projected that Laschet’s bloc will get 22 percent of the vote, compared with 25 percent for Scholz’s Social Democrats — putting the lead position within the margin of error.
The German Greens, whose campaign has been led by 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock, were predicted to come in with 17 percent, according to the poll. This would not only be their greatest result, but it would also represent a substantial drop in popularity from the earlier polls.
Many Germans remain undecided. Some 40 percent had not made a choice less than two weeks before the vote, according to a poll by the Allensbach Institute commissioned by the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. A majority of fence-sitters said that they weren’t persuaded or convinced by the candidates.
“This is a generational change after 16 years of one person in power,” said David-Wilp. “I think for that reason alone, Germans are very unsure about who would be the proper successor to Angela Merkel.”
Whoever comes out on top will first face the challenge of putting together a governing coalition. It is unlikely that any party will win the majority of parliament seats. This means at most two, and perhaps three parties, will have to work together in order to form a coalition government. This could lead to long discussions, but Merkel will remain the leader.
“We have an exceptional situation,” said Isabelle Borucki, a political science professor who teaches at the University of Siegen.
Germany has “never had such a fragmented party landscape, with so many parties being so close in the polls,” she added. “The closer the parties’ results will be, the more difficult coalition negotiations will become, because nobody will be able to claim the leadership entirely.”
When the shape of the government is clear, Merkel’s successor will then have to attempt to steer Germany and Europe through myriad challenges. These include decisions about foreign policy, including how to manage trade with China and Russia. There are also concerns over expansionism and human rights.
At home, there will be the question of whether Germany should continue borrowing to invest in infrastructure and digitalization, an issue that has come to the fore during the pandemic as the country’s weaknesses have been exposed.
But constrained by coalition politics, governing will be difficult, said Rudiger Schmitt-Beck, a politics professor at Mannheim University, referring to the potential for drawn-out negotiations.
“There will be a trend toward immobilism, toward lame compromises, toward not resolving problems,” he said. “The ability of the system to tackle the challenges it faces will be weakened.”
Meanwhile, the main candidates were out Saturday trying to sway undecided voters in their home districts. In the hopes that some of Laschet’s continued popularity would boost his faltering campaign, Laschet joined the outgoing chancellor at Aachen in Germany’s west border city.
Merkel, who had faced criticism for not supporting Laschet more forcefully through the campaign, urged voters to cast their ballot for him.
“Sometimes in those campaigns, one can perhaps come away with the idea that it maybe doesn’t matter who governs Germany that very moment,” she said. “I want to tell you, based on my experience, that in the political life of a chancellor, there are always moments in which it is anything but irrelevant who governs.”
“That’s what tomorrow is about,” she said.
Laschet has run a flailing campaign, blighted by missteps, the most damaging of which was an incident when he was caught on camera laughing during a tribute to victims of Germany’s devastating summer floods.
In recent days Laschet has pressed upon voters that a win from the Social Democrats could mean a coalition including Germany’s far-left Die Linke party — one that is stigmatized for much of German society because of Die Linke’s roots in the party that ruled Communist East Germany.
Scholz has not ruled out such a constellation, though he says it’s not his preference.
That message has hit home for some. “This year we have to choose the lesser evil,” said Karin, 64, who was visiting Stralsund in Merkel’s home constituency this past week to see the chancellor appear alongside Laschet. She declined to give her last name to speak about how she planned to vote: for Laschet’s bloc, even though she feels that “he really doesn’t belong in politics.”
“He doesn’t have any ability to get things done,” she said. “He can’t even manage his state.”
But she was too worried that voting for anyone but the Christian Democrats could mean the far-left in a governing coalition.
On Saturday, Scholz and Baerbock were drumming up support in Potsdam, the riverside capital of the German state of Brandenburg, just 16 miles southeast of Berlin, where both candidates are running for the seat.
“I’m hoping the result will come out differently than it currently looks,” Scholz told a small crowd that had gathered in a square in the city’s north to see him field questions. “I’m hoping for a big jump for the SPD, and that can happen with all your help.”
The center-left Social Democrats won the majority of the vote here in 2017, and voters like Christian Gottschling, a 49-year-old lawyer, have been less swayed by dire warnings over a left-leaning coalition.
It would be “ideal,” he said, as he passed a line of campaign stands where party representatives handed out fliers on a tree-lined pedestrian path in the city on Saturday.
“We need a change,” he said. “I’m not hugely hopeful that it will be a big change, but at least a step in the right direction for the future.”
Michael Schonherr, 42, a business consultant from Potsdam, said he wasn’t satisfied with any of the choices and was voting for “the least bad one,” but did not want to say how he was casting his ballot.
“This is not an optimal election for me, nor are the candidates,” he said. “The parties are too consumed with themselves and not what’s going on in the country.”
He criticized the Christian Democrats, who have won his vote in the past, for campaigning on fear of the left rather than the party’s own ideas.
“It’s harder to decide this time,” he said.
Florian Neuhof in Berlin contributed to this report.