BERLIN - Exit polls showed conservative challenger Angela Merkel's party leading in German parliamentary elections today but falling short of the majority she needed to form a center-right coalition as the nation's first female chancellor.
Gerhard Schroeder, written off as a lame duck a few weeks ago, finished stronger than expected and refused to concede defeat, saying he could still theoretically remain in power if talks with other parties were successful.
An exit poll by the Forsa agency showed Schroeder's party winning more seats in parliament even though Merkel's Christian Democrats received more votes overall.
"I feel myself confirmed in ensuring on behalf of our country that there is in the next four years a stable government under my leadership," he said to cheering supporters at his Social Democrat party headquarters while flashing the thumbs-up signal and holding his arms aloft in a gesture of triumph.
But Merkel claimed her party received a mandate from voters to form a new coalition government to carry out her plan to mend frayed ties with the United States.
"What is important now is to form a stable government for the people in Germany, and we ... quite clearly have the mandate to do that," she said.
Both Schroeder and Merkel said they would talk to all parties except the new Left Party, a combination of ex-communists and renegade Social Democrats.
Sunday's vote centered on different visions of Germany's role in the world and how to fix its sputtering economy. Schroeder touted the country's role as a European leader and counterbalance to America, while Merkel pledged to reform the economy and strengthen relations with Washington.
ZDF public television projections based on exit polls and early counting gave Merkel's Christian Democrats 35.2 percent and the Social Democrats 34.1 percent.
Merkel's preferred coalition partner the pro-business Free Democrats had 10.2 percent, while current Schroeder coalition partner Greens received 8.2 percent.
ARD public television showed near-identical results, with Merkel's party at 35.4 percent and the Social Democrats at 34.2 percent.
Forsa projected the Christian Democrats would win 34.8 percent of the vote and the Social Democrats 34.2 percent, but the Social Democrats would get more seats in parliament 223 to 220.
The Christian Democrats' projected totals were considerably worse than expected. Merkel's party consistently polled above 40 percent during the campaign, with surveys giving it a lead of 12 percentage points or more.
Schroeder claimed credit Sunday for trimming that lead, saying he accomplished "what many professional observers ... in this country believed was completely impossible weeks and even days ago."
"I do not understand how the (Christian Democratic) Union, which started off so confidently and arrogantly, takes a claim to political leadership from a disastrous election result," Schroeder said.
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