The centre-left Social Democratic Party has beaten Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union by a slim margin of 1.6 percentage points, according to preliminary official results reported early Monday.

The federal German election agency posted the results of the closely fought race at 4:30 a.m. local time.

Election officials said Monday that a count of all 299 constituencies showed the Social Democrats won 25.9 per cent of the vote, ahead of 24.1 per cent for the Union bloc.

Both the Greens and the Free Democrats also increased their share of seats in Parliament, to 14.8 per cent and 11.5 per cent, respectively.

The close outcome means the Social Democrats must team up with other parties to form a government.

“And in the complex equation that can be required in Germany to form a government, it is possible that if the winning party fails to get others on board, the party that placed second could wind up leading the country,” the New York Times reported.

Germany is set for weeks or even months of protracted coalition talks after the race to succeed Angela Merkel, who spent 16 years in power, failed to produce a clear winner.

Sunday’s election signaled the end of an era for Germany and for Europe. Foreign policy experts believe that for over a decade, Ms Merkel was not just chancellor of Germany but effectively the leader of Europe.

“She steered her country and the continent through successive crises and in the process helped Germany become Europe’s leading power for the first time since World War II.”

The Social Democrats’ candidate Olaf Scholz, the outgoing vice chancellor and finance minister, said the outcome was “a very clear mandate to ensure now that we put together a good, pragmatic government for Germany.”

“Voters have clearly spoken,” he said. “They have said who should build the next government by strengthening three parties, the Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Free Democrats. Consequently, that is the clear mandate that voters of this country have given, that these three parties should create the next government.”

“People checked the box for the S.P.D. because they want there to be a change of government in this country and because they want the next chancellor to be called Olaf Scholz,” he said.

Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and the candidate of Ms Merkel’s Union bloc, had struggled to motivate the party’s base and suffered a series of missteps in getting his nomination.

“Of course, this is a loss of votes that isn’t pretty,” Mr Laschet said of the results. He added that with Ms Merkel departing after 16 years in power, “no one had an incumbent bonus in this election.”

He told supporters that “we will do everything we can to form a government under the Union’s leadership, because Germany now needs a coalition for the future that modernizes our country.”

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