As Germany’s election results came into sharper focus on Monday, no party won a decisive majority, but the loser was clear: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
After 16 years in power under Ms. Merkel’s leadership, they saw their share of the vote collapse by nearly nine points, garnering only 24.1 percent of the vote. It was the party’s worst showing in its history, and the election signaled the end of an era for Germany and for Europe.
The Social Democratic Party defeated Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union by 1.6 percentage points, according to preliminary official results reported early Monday. Its candidate, Olaf Scholz, insisted the party’s gain of five points from 2017 — giving them 25.7 percent of the vote — provided them a mandate to form the next government.
It will most likely take at least three parties to form a government, and both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats were planning to hold competing talks to do so.
Already Monday, Germany saw the political posturing begin, as the two parties sought to woo partners for a potential government. But the most important potential partners, the environmentalist Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats, decided that they would first hold talks together.
Christian Lindner, the head of the Free Democrats, said his party and the Greens, which are the most polarized on key issues of taxes and renewable energy, needed to figure out whether they could find a “progressive center” on which to move ahead before holding talks with any further partners.
The process of forming a new government could take weeks if not months of haggling. That would leave Europe’s biggest democracy in a kind of limbo at a critical moment when the continent is still struggling to recover from the pandemic, and France — Germany’s partner at the core of Europe — faces divisive elections of its own next spring.
On Monday morning, Clément Beaune, France’s junior minister for European affairs, told France 2 television that Germany had prioritized “a form of moderation, of stability, of continuity.”
“It is in the French interest to quickly have a strong German government in place,” he said, expressing confidence that France and Germany would remain close partners, regardless of which coalition emerges. He said he saw the main parties as “committed, comfortable pro-Europeans.”
For over a decade, Ms. Merkel was not just chancellor of Germany but effectively also 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.
Cheers erupted at the Social Democratic Party’s headquarters when the exit polls were announced early Sunday evening. A short while later, supporters clapped and chanted “Olaf! Olaf!” as Olaf Scholz, their candidate, took the stage to address the crowd.
“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.
The campaign proved to be the most volatile in decades. Armin Laschet, the candidate of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, was long seen as the front-runner until a series of blunders compounded by his own unpopularity eroded his party’s lead. Mr. Scholz had been counted out altogether before his steady persona led his party to a spectacular 10-point comeback. And the Greens, who briefly led the polls early on, fell short of expectations but recorded their best result ever.
Mr. Laschet appeared at his party headquarters an hour after the polls closed, declaring the outcome “unclear” and vowing to try to form a government even if his party came in second.
The progressive, environmentalist Greens made significant gains as compared to the 2017 election but fell short of having a viable shot at the chancellery.
On the outer edge of the political spectrum, support for the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, appeared roughly unchanged, while the Left party appeared to be hovering on the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in Parliament.
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.