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German Election Results: Social Democrats Narrowly Beat Merkel's Bloc

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yesterday's election in Germany was a nail biter, but in the end, the country's center-left Social Democratic Party narrowly beat Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right party by just 1.6% in preliminary results. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz joins us now. Rob, very close, very close margin. What does the result then tell us about where Germany is headed after Merkel?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, the first thing these results tell us is that Germans are not unified on which party and which chancellor candidate they want to lead their country. The Social Democrats won this election with just 25.7% of the vote. The Christian Democrats came in second with just 24.1%. The top two parties received less than half the votes. This is a really interesting situation. Filling out the other half were the Green Party, the libertarian FDP party, the far-right AfD party and many others.

MARTINEZ: And Germany is a parliamentary democracy, so that means there's still a lot of work to do to try and form a coalition government.

SCHMITZ: That's right because no party received a clear majority. This means that the Social Democrats, as well as the Christian Democrats, will now be speaking to the smaller parties to see if they can entice them to govern with them. I spoke to Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund about this. She says we've seen this before in German politics but never quite like this.

SUDHA DAVID-WILP: The difference is now that the smaller parties are in the driver's seat, Merkel has left a very fragmented political landscape in Germany. And it looks like it's going to take three parties to form a majority for the next government. So the small parties, the Greens and the FDP, are actually sort of banding together to really call the shots for the next government.

MARTINEZ: All right. So these small party shot callers - who are they, and what do they want?

SCHMITZ: So the Greens are an environmentalist progressive party that want to make Germany carbon-neutral as quickly as possible, and they've had a profound impact on this election. They've channeled a growing frustration among Germans about climate change into a movement that's forced Germany's two largest parties to change their own platforms on this issue. The FDP is a liberal-minded libertarian party that is all about fiscal responsibility, and they're against high taxes. And what's interesting about these two parties who are now in the driver's seat for coalition talks is that they attracted the most first-time young voters in this election. So in many ways, they represent Germany's future.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, you mentioned Germany's top two parties will be courting these smaller parties to form a government. Who's best positioned to win what battle?

SCHMITZ: Well, Olaf Scholz, the chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats, comes into this with a lot of momentum. He's been able to make big gains for his party in the closing weeks of the campaign. Meanwhile, Armin Laschet, the candidate for the Christian Democrats, has stumbled over and over in his campaign. And he's delivered the worst loss for his party since World War II. It's clear that the Social Democrats are in the best position to form Germany's next government. And Scholz said as much last night during a candidates roundtable following the exit polls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLAF SCHOLZ: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And he's saying here that his party made bigger gains than the last election and even better than the polls a few weeks ago predicted. So, he says, this is a clear vote for his party. And then he went on to say that a few parties sitting here at that table last night have also achieved great gains, whereas others have not. And that's a pretty clear message to him. So this was sort of a way of him saying that the parties with the greatest gains - that would be his party, the Greens and the FDP - should form the next government, while the others who have not, namely the Christian Democrats - that's Merkel's party - should step down after such a poor showing.

MARTINEZ: Are they going to do that?

SCHMITZ: We don't know. The Christian Democrats, despite their poor showing, are a conservative party. They are natural allies of the FDP, which is also fiscally conservative. And on the state level throughout Germany, they've had a lot of experience governing with the Greens, too, so they're going to want to form a coalition government with these two smaller parties, as well. In the end, the party which offers the most in terms of cabinet positions and policy promises to these two smaller parties will likely come out on top. And because there are so many parties involved here, this could take weeks, if not months.

MARTINEZ: All right. That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Rob, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.