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Angela Merkel's party is neck and neck with Social Democrats in German election, exit polls show

Germany's centre-left Social Democrats were locked in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc in the country's parliamentary election on Sunday, exit polls showed.

The vote will determine who succeeds the long-time leader after 16 years in power, with officials from both parties saying they hoped to lead the next government.

An exit poll for ARD public television put voters' support at 25% each for the Social Democrats - for whom outgoing Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, 63, is running for chancellor - and Mrs Merkel's centre-right bloc under would-be successor state governor Armin Laschet, 60.

Another exit poll for ZDF public television put the Social Democrats ahead by 26% to 24%.

Both polls put the environmentalist Greens in third place with about 15% support. 

Germany has headed for the polls in one of the most unpredictable elections in recent times, as the EU's biggest economy prepares for life after Angela Merkel

The conservatives and centre-left Social Democrats are in a tight race for the crown which Merkel will be handing over (pictured today)

But with 40 per cent of the electorate casting their ballot by post - including Merkel herself, trends of first estimates could well change when the postal votes are taken into account once the count begins.

Postal voting is not included in exit polls as they are conducted via surveys on people leaving polling stations across Germany.

The electoral system typically produces coalition governments but post-Second World War Germany has never previously seen a winning party take less than 31% of the vote - or the Union bloc score less than that.

Given the exit poll predictions, putting together the next coalition government for Europe's biggest economy could be a lengthy and complicated process.

Mrs Merkel will remain as a caretaker leader until a new government is in place.

The exit polls also put support for the business-friendly Free Democrats at 11% to 12% and the Left Party at 5%.

The far-right Alternative for Germany party - which no other party wants to work with - was seen winning up to 11% of the vote. 

The general secretary of Mr Laschet's Christian Democratic Union, Paul Ziemiak, acknowledged that his party had suffered 'bitter losses' compared with the last election four years ago, in which it scored 32.9% of the vote.

But he said it would be a 'long election evening' and pointed to the possibility of a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats.

His Social Democrat counterpart, Lars Klingbeil, declared that his party 'is back' after languishing for years in the polls.

He added: 'With this, we have the mission to form a coalition.'

But he would not say which coalition partners would be approached.

Armin Laschet (pictured with his wife Susanne), 60, of the CDU-CSU, voted in his home town of Aachen today

The Social Democrats have been boosted by Mr Scholz's relative popularity after a long poll slump, and by his rivals' troubled campaigns.

The Greens' first candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, suffered from early gaffes and Mr Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, struggled to motivate his party's traditional base.

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

Mrs Merkel will not be an easy leader to follow, for she has won plaudits for steering Germany through several major crises.

Her successor will have to lead the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which Germany so far has weathered relatively well thanks to large rescue programmes.

Mr Laschet insisted there should be no tax increases as Germany pulled out of the pandemic.

Mr Scholz and Ms Baerbock favour tax hikes for the richest Germans, and also back an increase in the minimum wage.

Germany's leading parties have significant differences in their proposals for tackling climate change.

Mr Laschet's Union bloc is pinning its hopes on technological solutions and a market-driven approach, while the Greens want to ramp up carbon prices and end the use of coal earlier than planned.

Mr Scholz has emphasized the need to protect jobs as Germany transitions to greener energy.

Foreign policy has not featured much in the campaign, although the Greens favour a tougher stance towards China and Russia. 

Nico Siegel, head of the Infratest Dimap polling company which conducted the exit poll alongside ARD, said 'we will certainly see some surprises on Sunday,' as he spoke ahead of the results.

Despite the SPD's lead in the polls, a victory for the conservatives 'can't be ruled out', he said. 'The race for first place is wide open.' 

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was among the early voters on Sunday, declaring that 'to vote is to live democracy' as he cast his ballot in Berlin. 

At a polling station in Aachen, voter Ursula Becker, 62, told AFP: 'This year it's quite exciting who it will be, and it's always important who governs.'

In Berlin, Hagen Bartels, 64, said he was expecting 'the surprise that the biggest party is not the SPD but probably the CDU'. 

With both parties likely to fall well short of the majority needed to govern alone, there could be weeks or even months of fraught coalition negotiations.

After Germany's last election in September 2017, it was February before the CDU-CSU formed a coalition with the SPD.

Laschet, an affable but gaffe-prone centrist and longtime Merkel ally, was for some time the clear favourite.

Scholz, who at the start of the year had looked down and out in the race, saw his ratings rise recently

But his popularity began to wane after a series of blunders over the summer, including being caught on camera laughing in the background during a tribute to the victims of devastating floods in Germany.

In the meantime, Scholz, who at the start of the year had looked down and out in the race, saw his ratings begin to rise as he avoided making such embarrassing mistakes.

On voting day itself, Laschet committed another blunder by folding his ballot with his choices visible rather than hidden - he cast both his votes for the CDU.

The faux-pas before live cameras sparked a Twitter storm, with some calling it an 'own goal' for Laschet, although the chief of the electoral commission Georg Thiel said the ballot was still valid. 

Along with social justice, climate change has been one of the top concerns among voters in the run-up to the election.

In Aachen, first-time voter Maite Hoppenz, 18, told AFP that climate change was 'definitely a big topic for me because I think it will certainly have a big impact on my future'.

The conservatives and centre-left Social Democrats are in a tight race for the crown which Merkel will be handing over after a mammoth 16 years in power

Benedikt Ruedesheim, 33, said he would have liked to see 'a bit more clarity about who is planning what' on climate change as he cast his vote in Berlin.

The Green party enjoyed a surge in support earlier this year after naming 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock as its chancellor candidate, at one point even briefly taking the lead as the most popular party.

But after a series of missteps by Baerbock, including a plagiarism scandal, the Greens are now polling well behind the two leading parties on around 17 percent.

While the chancellery may be out of reach for the party, it will likely have a role in Germany's next government.

All bets are off on the composition of the next coalition, as the SPD and the conservatives could each try to cobble together a ruling majority if there is little to divide their score.

On the eve of the polls, Scholz voiced his preference for a partnership with the Greens, calling on voters to give him the score needed to go with a two-way coalition.

Laschet has signalled he could still try to form a coalition even if the CDU-CSU do not come first, most likely calling on the Greens and the liberal FDP for support.

But coming second would be a devastating blow for the party, which has dominated German politics since World War II and has never won less than 30 percent of the vote in federal elections.

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