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Germans reject political extremes in victory for centrist parties

The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) led by Olaf Scholz narrowly beat Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU in Sunday’s polls. Political scientist Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff says the overall trend is clear: Germans voted for the centre. He speaks to FRANCE 24 about what this could mean for the CDU, SPD and Germany’s smaller parties as they prepare for coalition talks.

It did not take long after the polls closed for the two leading candidates to claim they could be Germany’s next chancellor. Olaf Scholz, of the social-democratic SDP, and Armin Laschet, of the conservative CDU, both say they are in a strong position to head up the country’s next governing coalition even as the final votes are still being counted.

What is more, both of them could be right. Exit polls show Germany’s two major parties neck and neck. With support from the Greens and the liberal FDP, either one of them could secure a majority in the Bundestag (parliament).

In one sense, this marks a significant blow for Angela Merkel’s CDU, which is on track for its worst result since its founding in 1945, and a success for the SPD, which is projected to best its 2017 score by five points. Still, “it’s the first time in Germany’s postwar history that the battle to name the next chancellor looks this open”, says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, political scientist and vice president of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office.

For Kleine-Brockhoff, the real winners of Sunday’s vote are the centrists.

“Germans voted for moderate candidates despite the pandemic and health crisis which, in other countries, have benefitted populist and extremist movements,” he tells FRANCE 24. “In a way, people kept voting for Angela Merkel, even though she wasn’t on the ballot, since they voted for a candidate — Olaf Scholz — who campaigned on his role in government and presented himself as the chancellor’s natural political successor.”

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