Germany embarks on a potentially lengthy search for its next government after the center-left Social Democrats narrowly beat the center-right bloc of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel in an election that failed managed to set a clear direction for Europe’s largest economy under a new ruler.

Party leaders in the newly elected parliament gathered on Monday to digest a result that saw Merkel’s Union bloc crumble to its worst result in a nationwide election, and appeared to hand over the keys to power between the hands of two opposition parties.

Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, who pulled his party out of a years-long slump, and Armin Laschet, Merkel’s party candidate who saw her party’s fortunes decline in a turbulent campaign, claimed the leadership of the next government.

(PA Graphics)

Mr. Scholz is the outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance and Mr. Laschet is the Governor of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Whoever becomes chancellor will do so, with his party winning a smaller share of the vote than any of his predecessors.

Who gets the job seems to depend on the decision of future junior partners, green environmentalists and business-friendly Free Democrats – parties that have traditionally belonged to rival ideological camps.

“Voters have spoken very clearly,” Scholz said on Monday.

Election in Germany
The candidate of the Christian Union parties for chancellor Armin Laschet arrives in Berlin on Monday (Michael Kappeler / dpa / AP)

“They have strengthened three parties, the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats, so this is the visible mandate that the citizens of this country have given: these three parties should lead the next government.

The only other option that would have a parliamentary majority is a repeat of the “grand coalition” of the Union and the Social Democrats.

This is the group that ruled Germany for 12 years out of Ms Merkel’s 16-year tenure and has often been marred by feuds, but this time it would be under Mr Scholz’s leadership with Ms Merkel’s bloc in as a junior partner. However, there is little appetite for it.

Mr Scholz said the Union “has received the message from citizens that they should no longer be in government, but join the opposition”.

Merkel’s outgoing government will remain in office until a successor is sworn in, a process that can take weeks or months. She announced in 2018 that she would not be running for a fifth term.

Election in Germany
Olaf Scholz, Minister of Finance and SPD candidate for chancellor after addressing his supporters (Michael Sohn / AP)

The Greens traditionally lean on the side of the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats on the Union side, but none ruled out the opposite on Sunday evening.

The Greens made big gains in the election to finish third, but are nowhere near their original goal of taking the chancellery, while the Free Democrats have improved slightly from a strong 2017 result.

The final official results give the Social Democrats 25.7% of the vote and the Union 24.1%. Four years ago, they won 20.5% and 32.9% respectively.

The Union, made up of Mr Laschet’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union, had never exceeded 31% in a national parliamentary election.

The Greens got 14.8%, the Free Democrats 11.5% and the far-right Alternative for Germany 10.3% – down from the 12.6% needed to enter parliament for the first time times in 2017.

The smallest party in the new parliament is the Left Party, which only won 4.9% of the vote.