Angela Merkel claims German election victory

Chancellor on course to form coalition government with preferred allies, initial figures show

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was today on track to form a centre-right government with her preferred coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, initial election results showed.

Exit polls issued by state television revealed that her Christian Democrats (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), had secured 33.5%, with the Free Democrats (FDP) taking 15%, giving a Bundestag majority of at least 308 seats.

The results bring an end to an unwieldy four-year "grand coalition" between the CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD).

The new government is expected to define itself by tax-cutting measures and a push to extend the lives of nuclear power plants whose planned phase-out was one of the main policy achievements of a previous centre-left government.

It was a night of bitter defeat for the SPD, which suffered its worst result for 60 years. The party secured only 22.5% – a drop of almost 12% since the last election.

A lacklustre campaign, driven by personalities rather than policies, attracted Germany's lowest postwar turnout, with only 72.5% of the eligible 62 million voters taking part, compared with 78% in 2005.

The night's winner was seen to be the FDP, which secured its best result, increasing its vote share by 5.2% from 2005.

Its leader, Guido Westerwelle – who advocates lowering taxes and relaxing employment rules and is the first openly gay leader of a German mainstream party – is almost certain to become the next foreign minister when the FDP enters government for the first time in nine years.

Other fringe parties enjoyed a record surge in support as voters abandoned their traditional allegiances.

The Greens secured 10%, an increase of 2.3%, and the extreme-left Linke party took 12.5%, an increase of 3.8%.

Figures showed that 26% of Germany's jobless voted for Links, underlining the extent to which the two-year old party – a conglomeration of former communists and disillusioned Social Democrats – has won voters from the SPD.

Addressing a glum group of SPD supporters in Berlin, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the outgoing foreign minister and SPD candidate for chancellor, said it was a "bitter day for German social democracy".

Accepting defeat, he said the SPD would now form a "strong opposition", in particular fighting to keep the nuclear power plant phase-out in place.

In the CDU party headquarters, supporters were jubilant as the news of the conservatives' win came through.

"This is an evening in which Angela Merkel has achieved her goal to form the government she wants," said Roland Koch, the leader of Hesse state, referring to 2005 when the CDU share of the vote dropped by more than 6% and the party was forced into an unwanted partnership. "This is a clear vote of confidence for the politics for which she stands."

Last night's result was seen as a clear sign of approval towards the steady leadership style of Merkel. She enjoys the highest popular support of almost any leader since the second world war, with three-quarters of Germans saying they thought she was doing a good job.

She was greeted with cheers of "Angie! Angie!" as she addressed supporters at the CDU headquarters in Berlin.

"You're happy today and so am I," she said. "We've managed to secure a stable coalition … and that's good."

She said she wanted to be a "chancellor for all Germans", "so that Germany does better, particularly in a crisis". She added that although she "didn't want to encourage sobriety" on election night, "the work starts now" and that her priority was to "secure jobs".

The in-tray

The economy Germany faces huge challenges to keep unemployment from rising and sustain the recovery which has been bolstered by stimulus packages which are soon to expire.

Afghanistan There is growing pressure to reconsider the stationing of 4,200 troops in the country.

EU's Lisbon reform treaty Germany will be expected to take a central role in deciding what to do if Ireland rejects the treaty on Friday.

Iran The new German foreign minister will take part in talks in Geneva on Thursday about Iran's nuclear activity.


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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