THE CLOSEST German election since the war ended in a virtual dead- heat last night, with both main parties claiming victory on the basis of conflicting early projections. Exit polls showed only a fraction of a percentage point dividing Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's Social Democrats from Edmund Stoiber's centre-right alliance.
The balance was held by the Greens, who did much better than expected, the free-market Free Democrats (FDP), who did worse than expected, and ultimately by the former East German Communists (PDS), whose continuing representation in the Bundestag was not assured.
The Greens were the big winners of the night, who hailed their 8 to 9 per cent share of the vote as a "fantastic achievement" that would strengthen their bargaining in any new coalition. The PDS looked unlikely to reach the 5 per cent threshold, or three directly elected MPs, needed for representation in the Bundestag. The free- market FDP increased its share of the vote, but took fourth place behind the Greens. Its flamboyant leader, Guido Westerwelle, described the result as "a great disappointment". A stronger showing could have paved the way for the FDP to return to government in a CSU/CDU-led coalition.
A rapturous Joschka Fischer, the lead candidate for the Greens and Foreign Minister in the outgoing government, said: "Our aim is to continue the `red-green' coalition and we are confident we will do that." The Environment Minister, Jurgen Trittin, said: "Our first priority is that the next Chancellor's name is Schroder."
In his first statement after the release of early exit polls, Chancellor Schroder was subdued, praising his campaign team but taking nothing for granted. He told SDP supporters to keep their fingers crossed. "Let's wait and see," he said. "Sometimes those who celebrate early are celebrating too early." The key was "majority, majority," he said. …