AP Photo/Michael Sohn
German chancellor Angela Merkel smiles behind German flags at the party headquarters in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, after the first exit polls have been published. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn) Michael Sohn/The Associated Press
Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives triumphed in Germany's election Sunday, and could even win the first single party majority in more than 50 years. Her centre-right coalition partners risked ejection from parliament for the first time in their post-World War II history.
Depending on what parties end up in parliament, Merkel could also find herself leading a "grand coalition" government with the left-leaning Social Democrats.
"This is a super result," said Merkel, who can now expect to serve a third term.
She wouldn't immediately speculate about the shape of the next government, but the 59-year-old made clear she plans to serve a full term. "I see the next four years in front of me and I can promise that we will face many tasks, at home, in Europe and in the world," Merkel said during a television appearance with other party leaders.
Merkel's conservative Union bloc won about 42 per cent of the vote, an improvement of more than eight points over Germany's last election in 2009, according to ARD and ZDF television projections based on exit polls and early counting. They showed the conservatives falling just short of an absolute majority — which is possible because parties need five per cent support to claim seats in the lower house. Many small parties miss that threshold, meaning their votes don't count in the division of seats.
Merkel's coalition partners of the past four years, the pro-business Free Democrats, were just below the five per cent level needed to claim seats in the lower house, according to the projections.
Nevertheless, the Union's strong showing was a personal victory for Merkel, solidifying her position as Europe's strongest political leader.
"We will do everything together in the next four years to make them successful years for Germany," Merkel said. Merkel was interrupted by cheers and chants of "Angie! Angie! Angie!" as she made a brief appearance at her party's headquarters.
"She as a person is absolutely the best we could get in the last 20 years or so," Ulrika Maas told CBC News
Centre-left challenger Peer Steinbrueck's Social Democrats trailed well behind Merkel's party with up to 26.5 per cent, projections showed. Their Green allies polled eight percent, while the hard-line Left Party — heirs of the former Communist East German rulers with whom the centre-left parties have said they won't form an alliance — scored 8.5 per cent.
"We did not achieve the result we wanted," Steinbrueck told supporters. He said that he wouldn't engage in "speculation" about the next government.
"In Germany it really is all about coalition politics, and Merkel's main coalition partner, a pro-business party, is under threat, actually struggling ... to get the five per cent needed to get into parliament. And that could change everything," the CBC's Margaret Evans said, reporting from Berlin.
If Merkel's current coalition lacks a majority and the conservatives can't govern alone, the likeliest outcome is a Merkel-led alliance with the Social Democrats. The two are traditional rivals, but governed Germany together in Merkel's first term after an inconclusive 2005 election.
"The ball is in Merkel's court," Steinbrueck said. "She has to get herself a majority."
It wasn't clear whether a new party that calls for an "orderly breakup" of the eurozone, Alternative for Germany, would win seats in parliament's lower house. The exit polls showed them winning up to 4.9 per cent — just shy of enough for seats. Merkel and others have said they won't deal with the party.
Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a conservative, said it was an "overwhelming" result for Merkel's party.
"The important thing is that Germany has stable conditions," she said.
Merkel wouldn't comment on whether she would govern with a very thin one-party majority. True to her methodical style, she said she would wait for the final result and then proceed "step by step."
However, Steinbrueck and the Greens' Juergen Trittin said they wouldn't advise their parties to form a coalition with Merkel if she didn't actually need them to govern. Whatever the outcome, Merkel will have to deal with her centre-left rivals to get legislation through parliament's upper house, which represents Germany's 16 state governments and which her rivals control.
The exit polls were greeted by shocked silence at the Free Democrats' election event. Four years ago, the party won nearly 15 per cent of the vote — but the party has taken much of the blame for squabbling in Merkel's governing coalition since then.
"It's the bitterest, saddest hour of the Free Democratic Party," the party's leader, Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, said.
Merkel's party ran a campaign centred squarely on Merkel's personal popularity. Recent polls gave her popularity ratings of up to 70 per cent, but the sky-high ratings didn't extend to her coalition.
Merkel calls her current coalition "the most successful government since reunification" 23 years ago. She points to the robust economy and unemployment which, at 6.8 per cent, is very low for Germany and far below that of many other European countries.
Merkel has pursued a hard-nosed course in the euro crisis — insisting on spending cuts and economic reforms in exchange for bailout struggling countries such as Greece. The bailouts haven't been popular, but Germany has largely escaped the economic fallout from the crisis, and Merkel has won credit for that.
Europe played only a very limited role in the election campaign. It was dominated by domestic issues such as centre-left calls for tax increases on high earners and a national minimum wage, which Merkel rejected.