The German election is over, but the struggle for the chancellorship is not – with two rival candidates now at the mercy of kingmakers from smaller parties.
Olaf Scholz savoured a comeback victory and claimed a mandate to lead Germany on Monday after his Social Democrats (SPD) came out on top at the election.
The SPD is the biggest party but is far short of a majority with 206 of the 735 seats in parliament. Its centre-right rival ended up with 196 seats. It paves the way for negotiations with the smaller green and liberal parties to determine how a three-way coalition deal can be struck.
Runner-up Armin Laschet, the leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), could still take the crown if he persuades those smaller parties to side with him.
The result turns the spotlight on the two parties that either Mr Scholz or Mr Laschet would need for a majority – the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP).
Whoever leads it, such an alliance would be a tricky three-way coalition which has never been tried before at national level.
The FDP is politically closer to Mr Laschet, while the Greens have made clear that they prefer Mr Scholz. But neither has ruled out going the other way.
Both parties used the election campaign to call for change after eight years of a “grand coalition” between the CDU and SPD.
Speaking as results came in, FDP leader Christian Lindner proposed that the two kingmakers should agree their position before approaching the big two.
“It could be advisable for the parties that campaigned against the status quo of the grand coalition, from different perspectives, to speak to each other first,” he said.
Annalena Baerbock, representing the Greens in a debate between party leaders, indicated that she was open to talks with Mr Lindner.
“It’s more than sensible that different parties should talk to each other in different combinations,” she said.
How long will it take?
Reflecting the mood that talks could take months, candidates were asked on Sunday whether it was realistic for a new Cabinet to be in office by Christmas.
“My aim is that we do it more quickly,” said Mr Scholz. “It would be absurd to give an exact date, but we should do everything to be finished by Christmas.”
Once a coalition is agreed, the new chancellor must be confirmed by a majority of MPs in the new parliament.
There is no formal deadline to reach a deal, because the constitution allows Chancellor Angela Merkel to stay in office on a caretaker basis as long as necessary.
After the September 2017 election, it took until the following March for a new government to be sworn in.
Option 1: ‘Traffic light’ under Scholz
Mr Scholz’s favoured outcome is a deal between the SPD, FDP and Greens. This is known as a “traffic light” coalition, in reference to the colours of the three parties.
Speaking on Monday, he claimed that the three parties had a mandate to form a government because they all made gains at the election.
“The voters have spoken very clearly. They strengthened three parties – the SPD, the Greens and the FDP,” he said.
But coalition talks will not be easy. Mr Lindner has repeatedly played down the idea of the pro-business FDP working with two left-leaning parties.
The FDP opposes tax rises and increased debts, while the SPD wants more revenues from the rich and the Greens want to relax borrowing rules.
Mr Scholz said he was happy for the FDP and Greens to speak among themselves first. “Governing parties have to trust each other,” he said.
Option 2: ‘Jamaica’ under Laschet
A deal between the CDU, Greens and FDP is known as a “Jamaica” coalition because their colours match the country’s flag. Mr Laschet signalled he is open to talks.
Mrs Merkel tried to form such a coalition after the 2017 election, but Mr Lindner eventually torpedoed the talks.
The FDP has indicated it is willing to try again this time. It has worked with Mr Laschet in a CDU-FDP coalition in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
But there are doubts over whether the CDU should seek to govern after coming second and crashing to the lowest vote share in its history.
Persuading the Greens also will be difficult. Michael Kellner, the party’s political director, stressed on Monday that it was closer to the SPD.
“We have a result where the SPD was ahead,” he said. “We saw in the exit polls that people want Olaf Scholz to be chancellor, not Armin Laschet.”
Option 3: Another ‘grand coalition’
The SPD and CDU worked together in a “grand coalition” for three of Mrs Merkel’s four terms in office, but there is little appetite for another.
“In my view, everyone believes that the grand coalition and its manner of working does not have many prospects for the future,” said Mr Laschet.
Mr Scholz said the CDU and its Bavarian sister party should not be in the next government. “They have essentially received the message from citizens – they should no longer be in government, but should go into opposition,” he said.
But the option remains, mathematically, on the table. The SPD initially ruled it out after the 2017 election before eventually changing its mind.
A CDU minority government and even a second snap election had been mooted before the SPD finally made a deal.
No longer an option: Red-Red-Green
To the left of the SPD and Greens, the small Die Linke party will have 39 seats in the new parliament. But a so-called Red-Red-Green coalition would not have a majority.
Mr Scholz came under fire from the CDU for failing to rule out such a coalition during the campaign. The Linke opposes Germany’s membership of Nato.
But the question became redundant after the Linke barely scraped into the new parliament, winning only 4.9 per cent of the vote.
Also out of the picture is the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). It won 83 seats but is shunned by all other parties.