A triumphant Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to have pulled off her planned “dream coalition” last night as German voters backed her for another term in power and allowed her to ditch her often-strained alliance with the Social Democrats.
Although exit polls showed that the Chancellor's party's, the Christian Democrats, managed only 33% of the vote — one of its poorest showings — her first-choice partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, clocked up a record 14.5%, the best performance in their history.
If these results are confirmed it spells the end of Ms Merkel's four-year “Grand Coalition” with the Social Democrats and ushers in a new government committed to tax cuts and economic reform that will spike plans to phase out nuclear power completely by 2021.
Dressed in a bright-red jacket and grinning broadly, Ms Merkel was greeted with chants of “Angie, Angie” as she appeared before her supporters at Berlin's conservative party headquarters last night.
“Dear friends, we've done something great,” the 55-year-old told the crowd. “We've got a stable coalition and that's good for Germany.”
There was wild jubilation at the Free Democrats party camp too. Guido Westerwelle, the party leader, told cheering supporters: “We are proud to celebrate the best result since the founding of post-war Germany.”
Mr Westerwelle, who could be in line to become Germany's next foreign minister, had fought a campaign that was committed to tax cuts, to forming a coalition with the conservatives, and returning the party to government after an 11-year interlude.
By contrast, yesterday's general election was a disaster for the Social Democrats who polled a mere 23.5% of the vote, their worst national performance since the founding of post-war West Germany.
Their support seemed to have bled to the Linke — the successor organisation to the former East German Communist Party — that won a record 13% of the vote.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the man who had been hoping to unseat Ms Merkel, told supporters at Social Democrat headquarters in Berlin: “There is no way of talking round this one. It is a bitter defeat.” There were loud boos as he conceded that Ms Merkel would now form a new coalition with the Free Democrats.
Germany's Green Party followed the trend of smaller parties making significant gains. The party, led by Jurgen Trittin, won 10% of the vote, reaching double figures for the first time in a general election.
In the run-up to yesterday's poll Ms Merkel's conservatives relied heavily on the German Chancellor's personal popularity, which had been consistently higher than that of the party.
The Christian Democrats were criticised for conducting a “cotton wool” campaign, which failed to spell out policy and relied on placards which simply displayed large portraits of Ms Merkel. But her choice of tactics appeared to have been vindicated.
Security was tightened across Germany during yesterday's ballot following a series of threats by al-Qaeda. The broadcasts warned of attacks unless the Berlin government took steps to withdraw its 4,000 troops in Afghanistan.