Polling stations have opened in Germany as the nation decides who will succeed in the race to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor after 16 years.
As final rallies were held across the country by the the main candidates on Saturday, with polls showing the lead held by the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz over Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats to have narrowed to a tiny margin, voter participation among the more than 60 million Germans eligible to vote, was predicted to be high.
The Greens, under Annalena Baerbock, which at one point had led in the polls, were on track to secure third place, and are expected to find themselves in government for the first time since 2005.
The departure of Merkel – the first incumbent chancellor to not run for office again since the second world war, has left the contest far more volatile and incalculable than ever before. A large number of Germans were still believed to be undecided even in the hours ahead of polling day.
Due to the pandemic, about 40% – a record number – of voters have already cast their ballot in a postal vote.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president, said Germany faced a “political transition” and urged citizens to use their vote to determine “how the country continues to deal with both the small and large questions of our time”.
“Democracy thrives on intervention and participation. Those who participate will be heard. Those who don’t vote are allowing others to decide for them,” he wrote in a guest commentary for the Bild am Sontag tabloid.
The climate emergency has been a key topic during the campaign, with activists at Fridays for Future demonstrations across the country on Friday appealing to a new government to put tackling the global climate crisis at the top of its agenda. Ahead of polls opening, two remaining campaigners from a group that had been on hunger strike in a camp next to the Bundestag since 30 August called off their strike after Scholz agreed to a public meeting with them in four weeks’ time.
The polls opened at 88,000 voting stations around the country at 8am and will close at 6pm, with the first exit polls due to be published at the same time.
The lead candidates are due to hold a so-called “Elephant Round”, a live round-table TV debate about the future make-up of the government, at 8.15pm local time.
But clarity is not expected even once the final results are known. A coalition government is an inevitability, but for the first time in more seven decades it is expected to be made up of three parties, leading to months of complicated and heated negotiations between them.
Merkel will stay in office in a caretaker role until the new government takes power, which could take weeks or even months.
The party that achieves the best result will not automatically lead the government but will have to court the runners-up to join them in power. The Green party, which has previously shared power with the Social Democrats in national government, is expected to be a key kingmaker, along with the pro-business Free Democratic party (FDP), which has traditionally been a natural partner for the conservative alliance.
The most likely coalitions are:
A traffic-light coalition – reflecting the parties’ trademark colours – between the SPD, Greens and FDP.
A Jamaica alliance (the parties’ colours matching those of the Jamaican flag) made up of the CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP.
Or a so-called ‘Red-Red-Green’ coalition between the SPD, Greens and the far-left Die Linke.
Under Germany’s proportional representation system, each voter has two votes. The first is for a direct candidate in one of the 299 constituencies that gives each district parliamentary representation.
The second vote is for a party and determines the composition of the Bundestag.
Parties must secure 5% of votes to be able to enter the Bundestag.
The size of the future parliament will only be determined once the votes are in, after adjustments are made to allow for the difference between the number of directly elected representatives and the results of the second vote to be taken into account.
But due to the number of direct candidates on track to win, it is expected the Bundestag could rise from the current all-time high of 709 seats to as many as 900. Election analysts have predicted a “horror scenario” that will not only be a challenge for those who have to organise the furniture but lead to an explosion in costs as well as complicating parliamentary business.
Under new rules, among those eligible to vote for the first time are 85,000 people with disabilities who will be allowed to enter the voting booth accompanied by a legal guardian.