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People walk and drive past election posters of the three candidates for German chancellor in Gelsenkirchen, from right, Armin Laschet, Annalena Baerbock of the German Green party and Olaf Scholz, on Sept. 23.Martin Meissner/The Associated Press

Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party and the governing conservatives were in a deadlock in Sunday’s national election, with rival candidates from both parties declaring they would try to form a government despite narrow preliminary results.

Hours after polls closed, Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats and outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), were neck and neck. Armin Laschet is the CDU’s chancellor candidate.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had more than 25 per cent of the vote, according to projections from broadcaster ARD, with the CDU/CSU projected to get roughly one or two percentage points less. Ms. Merkel’s party was heading toward its worst result in a national election.

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Mr. Scholz told a room full of fired-up supporters that his party had done better than it had in a long time. The SPD has not led a government in sixteen years, instead playing a junior partner to Ms. Merkel’s party for much of that time.

“It’s going to be a long election night,” Mr. Scholz said. “But another thing that’s sure is that many citizens have voted for the Social Democrats because they want a change in the government, and they want the chancellor to be Olaf Scholz.”

He said exit polls showed that his party was gaining support and that “this is a mandate given to us to ensure that everything we said in the election campaign, all of our proposals, be implemented and that we push for this politically.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Laschet thanked Ms. Merkel for her work. However, he acknowledged what it meant for their party without her on the ticket.

“It was clear that without her in office, it was going to be a tight election campaign. It was going to be neck and neck, and that’s exactly what’s happened,” he said. However, he added, “We as the Christian Democratic Union have received a clear mandate from our voters. A vote cast for the union is a vote cast against a left government.” Mr. Laschet said his party would do everything it could to form a government led by his party.

Sudha David-Wilp, a senior fellow and deputy director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’s Berlin office, said the close results mean that “it’s really the moment of the smaller parties to see who they want to go with.”

At this point, she said, both chancellor candidates have the right to say that they want to start coalition talks. However, Mr. Scholz’s party had a strong showing, while the CDU/CSU lost points.

“I think that either you’re going to have a strong Olaf Scholz come in, they’re pumped up, or a bruised Armin Laschet, who could become chancellor, but coming in from a weaker position.”

Sunday night, no coalition consisting of only two parties seemed possible, besides one that would be formed by the CDU/CSU and the SPD together. However, neither Mr. Scholz nor Mr. Laschet expressed interest in such a coalition.

The focus is then on the Green Party and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) that were projected to finish third and fourth, respectively, in the election. Both parties gained strength since the past election. Among voters younger than 30, the Greens and the FDP were the strongest parties, though the Green Party fell below expectations. One of the FDP deputy leaders, Johannes Vogel, said the election saw the rise of “a new party system” with four parties now being important.

Mr. Laschet and Mr. Scholz are expected to quickly start talks with the two parties to persuade them to build a new government. Mr. Scholz aims to build what is known as a “traffic-light coalition” – one that consists of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP. Mr. Laschet seeks to create a “Jamaica” coalition, which would be formed by the Conservatives, the Greens and the FDP.

A traffic-light coalition would probably put a stronger focus on socially progressive issues. For example, all three parties have campaigned on legalizing cannabis and lowering the voting age from 18 to 16.

However, FDP Leader Christian Lindner said he would rather work with the Christian Democrats than the SPD. Many FDP voters fear a left-leaning government would impose taxes on the rich, as Mr. Scholz has proposed.

The Greens did not make a clear announcement on which chancellor candidate they would support. Its leader, Annalena Baerbock, said the next government would need to be a “climate government.” On Sunday, the Greens gave the impression that they could work with either Mr. Scholz or Mr. Laschet, as long as they got their major policies through.

Compared with the situation a couple of months ago, the tight outcome of the election comes as a surprise. At the beginning of August, the SPD had only ranked third in polls behind the Greens and the CDU/CSU. The party had become almost insignificant after years of internal fights over its leaders and its strategic direction. Even leading Social Democrats were afraid that their party would not play an essential role in the election campaign altogether.

But as both Mr. Laschet and Ms. Baerbock stumbled during the campaign, the SPD gained strength. According to polls, this can mostly be attributed to Mr. Scholz, the current finance minister and vice-chancellor to Ms. Merkel. According to a recent Deutschlandtrend survey, a leading opinion poll in Germany, Mr. Scholz was considered the most likeable and credible candidate. People also thought that he had the best leadership qualities.

Mr. Laschet had been expected to be the successor to Ms. Merkel. Perhaps not because of his own popularity, but because he represents the party that’s been in power for 16 years.

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