With Angela Merkel leaving, Germany goes to polls in landmark election

Exit polls show a neck-and-neck race in Germany’s parliamentary elections held on Sunday. More than 60 million adults are eligible to vote in the landmark election. Chancellor Angela Merkel who has served for 16 years is stepping down, marking the start of a new era in German politics. Deutsche Welle Television Political Correspondent Thomas Sparrow joins to discuss the hotly contested election and how a new government will be formed.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on how the new German government is taking form, I spoke with Deutsche Welle Television Political Correspondent Thomas Sparrow about an hour and half after the polls closed.

    Thomas, why was this election so significant for Germany?

  • Thomas Sparrow:

    It was significant, one of the first reasons why it was significant is the fact that it was the end of Angela Merkel's 16 years as German chancellor. This is very unusual in German politics, in German politics, normally, power is actually defended or lost at the ballot box. But Angela Merkel in 2018 actually said that she did not want to be a candidate this time around. So for Germans, it is essentially a very difficult decision. It marks a completely new era and that is certainly one of the reasons why this has been so tight.

    But another element that explains why this is such a special election, such an important election, it's really because the country is very polarized. And that's something that we can clearly see now as those first results started to come in, the fact that those big tent parties, which in the past got a majority of the votes, which basically grouped all sorts of different people from different parts of Germany, well, that's no longer the case. And now German voters have plenty of different options. So these two elements explain why essentially that the race has been so tight and also what makes this election so special.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What were the issues that drove people to the polls? Why did they care to show up so much?

  • Thomas Sparrow:

    We have to differentiate between the big election campaign topics, for example, climate change, something that all major parties really focused on, or the coronavirus pandemic, which has played obviously as in basically everywhere around the world, a very important role here in Germany in the last few months, but also in the last year as well. So those are the big topics that politicians were often discussing.

    But, and this is also very important, but here in Germany, if you ask German voters what are the reasons why they would choose one party over the other, they normally say they focus on some of the big problems that Germany still has, for example, locally, so housing, pensions, education. Those are issues that are also very important when it comes to deciding what party people vote for. So it's not only about those big election campaigns and those big promises that candidates and parties have made in recent weeks. It's also about the issues that voters are facing locally or regionally as well.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are we likely, as the United States, to see any structural changes in how Germany interacts within the E.U. or with the United States?

  • Thomas Sparrow:

    That essentially depends on what coalition is built here in Germany, it's not as in the United States or in other countries where on Sunday after the vote, you know exactly what party will lead or what the next leader of the country will be. This could actually take a long time here in Germany. In 2017, coalition building took five months. And experts are now stressing that because the country is so polarized, that could also take a long time. So we could see different accents. But it is very unlikely that we will see radical change here in Germany. Germany is not a country accustomed to radical change.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Thomas Sparrow joining us from Berlin tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Thomas Sparrow:

    My pleasure.

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