Preliminary results show the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) at 25.7%, narrowly ahead of the center-right Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party (CDU/CSU) at 24.1%, according to data published by Germany's federal election commissioner on Monday morning.
Both the conservative bloc and the SPD have said they want to lead the next government, and mathematically, either party could if they secure the necessary allies.
The environmentalist Greens recorded their best ever result, taking 14.8% of the vote. The pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP) netted 11.5%, while the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) totaled 10.3%. The socialist Left party ended up at 4.9%.
Center-left parties emerged as the biggest winners of the election. Both the SPD and the Greens gained more than 5% compared to their results in the last federal election in 2017.
The conservative bloc suffered heavy losses as the Angela Merkel era comes to an end. They came in down over 8% on the previous election, which was their worst result since World War II.
What this means
In such a tight race, coalition possibilities remain unclear.
According to these preliminary results, one option is a continuation of the "grand coalition" of the conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the SPD that has governed Germany since 2013.
However, with the two biggest parties both vowing to build the next government, Germany could be headed for a three-way coalition for the first time since the 1950s at the federal level.
Options include a coalition between the CDU/CSU, the Greens and the FDP.
Alternatively, the SPD could also seek to partner up with the Greens and the FDP.
All parties have ruled out entering into a coalition with the AfD.
The election of Germany's new chancellor by the Bundestag won't take place until a governing coalition has been formed. This could take months. But SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz said he hoped coalition talks would be wrapped up by Christmas.
"To name an exact date would be absurd, but it must be the case that I, that we, do everything to ensure that we are ready before Christmas — a little earlier would also be good," Scholz said during a round-table discussion with other party candidates on Sunday night.
CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet also called for a government to "definitely" be formed before Christmas. In the meantime, Angela Merkel will remain in office in a caretaker role.
What the parties are saying
Scholz celebrated the projected election results at the SPD's party headquarters in Berlin, telling a crowd of cheering supporters that voters had made it clear they want him to be the "next chancellor."
"We have what it takes to govern a country," he said. "Let's wait for the final results, but then we will get down to work."
Laschet said the conservative bloc would do "everything we can" to form a new government, despite the election setback.
"We cannot be satisfied with the results of the election," Laschet told his supporters.
"We will do everything we can to build a conservative-led government because Germans now need a future coalition that modernizes our country," he said. "It will probably be the first time that we will have a government with three partners."
Greens chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock admitted that her party hadn't performed as well as expected, despite winning more votes than in the last federal election.
"We wanted more. We didn't achieve that, partly because of our own mistakes at the beginning of the campaign — mistakes on my part," Baerbock told supporters.
The Greens enjoyed a surge in support earlier in the year, even taking the lead in polls, but their popularity took a hit after a series of missteps, including a plagiarism scandal. Although the Greens don't have a shot at the chancellorship, they could play a role in the next governing coalition.
How does the election work?
The German electoral system produces coalition governments. It seeks to unite the principles of majority rule and proportional representation. Each voter casts two ballots. The first is for what is called a "direct" candidate from their constituency and the second is for a political party.
Any party that gets more than 5% of the votes is guaranteed a place in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. This ensures that both big and small parties are represented, but has led to the legislature becoming the second-biggest in the world with a possible 900 seats this time around.
The reason is Germany's complicated electoral law, and the mandates for the "overhang" seats (Überhangmandate) and compensation "leveling" seats (Ausgleichsmandate) that assure the composition of the Bundestag will be proportionate to the actual votes for the parties.
How long will it take to form a coalition?
The process of forming could take weeks, or even months.
Coalition negotiations in 2017 were the longest in German history. This is because the FDP walked out of talks between the CDU and the Green party after a month of negotiations. For the last eight years, the two biggest parties, the CDU and the SPD, have governed together with Angela Merkel as chancellor.
It remains to be seen if the process will go quicker this time — especially if the political priorities of the partners are more closely aligned.
How is the chancellor chosen?
The parties put forward their candidate ahead of the election campaign. Once a new government is in place, the German president nominates a chancellor to be elected by the Bundestag. This is typically the main candidate from the senior coalition partner in the newly-formed government.
To be elected, the chancellor candidate needs an absolute majority from lawmakers. So far, all chancellors, including Merkel, have been elected in the first round.
Can an election be contested?
In Germany, any eligible voter can contest elections. They must send a written formal objection to the election review commission with the Bundestag in Berlin within two months of election day.
This commission processes all submissions. A decision is made on each individual challenge, and each objector receives feedback from the Bundestag. The entire procedure can take up to one year.
To invalidate the results of a Bundestag election, an objection must meet two requirements. Firstly, there must be an electoral error that violates the Federal Election Act, the Federal Election Code, or the Constitution. Secondly, the reported electoral error would have to have an impact on the distribution of seats in the Bundestag.
Objectors can also contest the findings of the election review commission and go all the way to the Federal Constitutional Court.
A German national vote has never been declared invalid.
wmr,nm/msh (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)