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With possibly its worst-ever result in the country's parliamentary elections, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right bloc was locked in a very close race Sunday with Germany's centre-left Social Democrats, projections indicated.
The greens performed strongly, while the fringe left- and right-wing parties lost out, with Die Linke likely not making the 5 percent threshold which allows access to parliament.
Top officials from both parties said they hope to lead Germany's next government and have their candidates succeed Merkel, who has been in power since 2005.
Projections from ARD television, based on exit polls and early counting, put voters' support at 25.5% for the Social Democrats, whose candidate for chancellor is outgoing Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and 24.5% for Merkel's Union bloc under would-be successor Armin Laschet, governor of Germany's most populous state.
Separate projections for ZDF public television had the Social Democrats ahead by 26%. Both put the environmentalist Greens in third place with about 14% support.
Those results would be the worst for the Union bloc in post-World War II Germany.
The electoral system typically produces coalition governments but post-war Germany has never previously seen a winning party take less than the 31% of the vote that the Union won in 1949.
That was also the centre-right bloc's worst result until now.
The biggest loser is likely to be Die Linke, the party which is the ideological heir of the German Socialist Party that was in power for decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With an estimated loss of over 4 percent, estimates projected at 23:36 predicted it would not reach the 5 percent voter threshold needed for access to parliament.
In a first reaction to the exit polls, Kerstin Wolter, a candidate for the local parliament of Berlin's Friedrichsheim district for Die Linke, played down the projected loss of her party. While the party may not return in the national parliament, in Berlin itself it did well. "I'm ok with the results of the Berlin left, because we could hold our result from the last elections and I think it shows that the left is needed in Berlin," she told RFI.
But the big two parties, CDU and SPD will now face off in complicated negotiations in which the Greens and the liberal FDP party will be the kingmakers. The decision as to who will succeed Angela Merkel is far from being taken, and she will remain at the helm until the next Chancellor is appointed.