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Closely fought German election ushers in post-Merkel era

China Daily | Updated: 2021-09-27 09:30
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives a traditional cake reading 'thank you' as she attends a rally in Aachen, western Germany, on Saturday. [WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS]

BERLIN-Polls in Germany pointed to a very close race on Sunday between Angela Merkel's center-right Union bloc, with state governor Armin Laschet running for chancellor, and the center-left Social Democrats, for whom the outgoing finance minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz is seeking the top job.

Voters were choosing a new parliament in an election that would determine who succeeds Angela Merkel as chancellor after her 16 years at the helm of Europe's biggest economy.

Recent surveys had indicated the Social Democratic Party were marginally ahead. The environmentalist Greens, with candidate Annalena Baerbock, were making their first run for the chancellery, and the polls indicated they were several points behind in third place. The Social Democrats had been boosted by Scholz's relative popularity after a long poll slump. Baerbock suffered from early gaffes, and Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, struggled to motivate his party's traditional base.

About 60.4 million people in the country of 83 million were eligible to elect the new Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, which will elect the next head of government.

No party was expected to come anywhere near an outright majority. Polls showed support for all of them below 30 percent.

With such a result many governing coalitions would be mathematically possible but trigger weeks or even months of haggling to form a new government. Until it is in place, Merkel will remain in office on a caretaker basis.

Merkel has won plaudits for steering Germany through several major crises. The new chancellor will have to tend the recovery from the pandemic, which Germany has weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programs that have incurred new debt.

Laschet insists there should be no tax increases as the country pulls out of the pandemic. Scholz and Baerbock favor tax rises for the richest and a rise in the minimum wage.

Scholz on Friday hailed the outgoing government's success in preserving jobs during the pandemic, declaring that "we are succeeding in avoiding the major economic and social crisis that otherwise would have hit us".

Laschet, in his hometown of Aachen on Saturday, said: "We will achieve new growth if we do the right thing now in economic policy. If we do it wrong now with ideological experiments, everything that we have built up in 16 years will be squandered."

Merkel, making the last of only a handful of appearances in the campaign, praised Laschet as someone who "builds bridges, takes people along with him".

There are significant differences in the proposals of the leading parties for tackling climate change. Laschet's Union bloc is pinning its hopes on technological solutions and a market-driven approach, while the Greens want to raise carbon prices and end the use of coal earlier than planned. Scholz has emphasized the need to protect jobs as the country switches to greener energy.

The Bundestag has at least 598 seats, but the complex voting system means it can be considerably larger. The outgoing parliament had a record 709 seats, and the number of seats in the new one is widely expected to be even bigger.

The number of people voting by postal ballot is expected to be higher than the 28.6 percent who did so four years ago. Also on Sunday, voters in Berlin and in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in northeastern Germany, both ruled by the Social Democrats, were electing new state legislatures.

Agencies Via Xinhua

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