The narrowness of the margins means the German elections are at this point too close to call and predicting the next government — and chancellor — is impossible. A large number of postal ballots also remain to be counted.
The leader of the SPD, Olaf Scholz, has been seen as one of the leading candidates for the role, as has the CDU’s Armin Laschet.
The atmosphere at SPD headquarters was celebratory as the initial exit polls were announced, with hopes high that Scholz could be the candidate to take Germany forward after almost 16 years with Merkel at the helm.
Robin Fugmann, 20, an ardent Scholz supporter, told CNN he was delighted by the results so far.
“It is really an amazing result, people believe in Olaf Scholz, people believe that Armin Laschet really cannot lead this country,” he said. “So we really have the mandate to lead a new government — I hope we will do so. And first of all we are going to celebrate because this is a really amazing result.”
And whichever party comes out in front, lengthy coalition negotiations are expected before a government can be formed.
The reaction at the CDU headquarters as the initial exit polls emerged was one of disappointment, with the numbers suggesting the party could be looking at the worst result in its history.
“This is a result with bitter losses — there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” said CDU secretary-general Paul Zemiak. “This result really hurts.”
But, Zemiak added, the results are not yet final. “The evening is long and we will see what the next few hours will bring,” he said.
The crowd at the Green party headquarters in Berlin cheered as the first exit polls were being read out.
The outgoing government remains in office as acting government until it is replaced by a new government. Chancellor Angela Merkel, 67, will then step down, after almost 16 years in the job.
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen, Salma Abdelaziz, Nadine Schmidt and Stephanie Halasz reported from Berlin and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN’s Inke Kappeler contributed to this report.