The German chancellor’s centre-right Christian Democrat-led alliance took 33% of the vote in Sunday’s election – its worst result since 1949 but enough to remain the largest force in parliament.
The centre-left Social Democrats – Merkel’s government partners since 2013 in a “grand coalition” – also suffered their worst post-war result, taking 21%. Alternative für Deutschland secured 13%, marking the first time in almost six decades that an openly nationalist party will enter the Bundestag.
The elections have left an unprecedented number of parties jostling for influence in the next parliament. The pro-business FDP, leftwing Die Linke and the Green party will also crowd into the Bundestag’s plenary chamber – a first since the introduction of a 5% hurdle for parliamentary seats in 1953.
The chancellor’s biggest challenge is to sweet-talk two parties into allying with her – the FDP and the Green party – who not only intensely dislike one another but are both cautious of losing credibility with their voters.
Talks between the parties, which will also include the CDU’s Bavarian sister party the CSU, could potentially last until after Christmas and risk triggering fresh elections if they collapse.
The only upside for Merkel is that the AfD may also take some time to get itself into position. Long-standing splits inside the party emerged on Monday morning when its chairwoman Frauke Petry said she would not join the AfD’s parliamentary caucus, walking out of a news conference with fellow leaders.
“We should be open about there being differences of substance in AfD,” Petry said. “An anarchic party … can be successful in opposition, but it cannot make voters a credible offer for government.”
Merkel’s CDU needs to find one or more coalition partners in order to form a governing majority, or pursue a minority government.
A continuation of the CDU-SPD coalition would have guaranteed 53% of the vote, but was ruled out by the SPD’s lead candidate, Martin Schulz, as he conceded defeat on Sunday night.
“It’s a difficult and bitter day for social democrats in Germany,” Schulz told supporters. “We haven’t reached our objective.”
Many SPD members believe that the party can only recuperate its former energy in opposition.
One regularly cited slogan in the televised debates leading up to the election was that “grand coalitions are harmful for democracy”, usually followed by a reference to Austria, where a decade of centrist coalitions has boosted the far-right Freedom party.
If the SPD stayed outside the cabinet it would also stop AfD from assuming the role of leader of the opposition and gaining associated parliamentary privileges.
The only other option for a majority government would be a so-called “Jamaica coalition” between the CDU, the FDP and the Green party, named after the colours traditionally associated with the groups.
While such an arrangement would be a first in German history and require the Greens to bridge many differences on policy matters ranging from immigration to the car industry, many see it as a logical result of the party’s ideological transformations.
The FDP is seen as a traditional junior partner to the CDU and formed a cabinet with Merkel in her second term, yet the overlap between the liberal wing of the German conservatives and the business-friendly faction of the Greens is arguably as large as with the FDP under its strident young leader, Christian Lindner.
Informal talks between CDU and Green politicians started more than 20 years ago, when the seat of government was still in Bonn, and there a CDU-FDP-Green coalition is governing in Germany’s northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein.
Politicians from both the FDP and the Greens have publicly dismissed the Jamaica option, and a coalition would be seen with scepticism by the Green party’s members, who lean further to the left than its leadership. “How high do you have to be?”, the newspaper Taz noted wryly in its Friday edition, emblazoned with a picture of Bob Marley smoking a joint.
The FDP deputy leader, Wolfgang Kubicki, on Monday told journalists: “It is not up to us to form a ‘Jamaica coalition’ at any price.”
With AfD waiting to pounce on a weak government, however, both parties may discover unexpected reserves of pragmatism. In Green circles, some suggest that the ecological party should consider coalition talks if Merkel signals concessions on a number of environmental issues, such as a UK-style carbon price floor and a roadmap for phasing out coal.
Green candidate Katrin Göring-Eckardt said on Monday morning that she expected a “complicated” process of forming the next government, while her co-leader Cem Özdemir said his party would not “shirk responsibility”.
Should talks about a grand coalition or a Jamaica solution break down, Merkel could consider a minority government supported by all her three potential coalition partners. In times of crisis, she would be able to count on the FDP, the Greens and the SPD to back her – as the Social Democrats did on key votes during the eurozone crisis.
Speaking on TV on Sunday evening, however, Merkel appealed to rule out a minority government, saying it was her intention to “achieve a stable government in Germany”.
Other hypothetical coalitions, such as a leftwing alliance between the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens, would not get more than 50%. Coalition talks between the CDU and AfD have been ruled out by both parties.
The CDU and the SPD hold the record for the longest coalition-finding period, with Merkel having been sworn in 86 days after the 2013 election. The pro-business FDP was involved in the birth of Germany’s two quickest coalitions – once with Willy Brandt’s SPD in 1969 and once with Helmut Kohl’s CDU in 1983.