Angela Merkel has hinted that another election might have to be held after the collapse of coalition talks put her fourth term as German chancellor in doubt — a political crisis that has caused consternation across Europe.
Merkel said she was "very skeptical" about leading a minority government to run Europe's biggest economy and thinks another trip to the ballot box would be a better solution.
The uncharacteristic disarray — Germany hasn’t had a post-election minority government since World War II — comes as Europe grapples with instability from Brexit, immigration and the rising threat from the far-right.
“We now face a situation that we haven't had in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, so in nearly 70 years," President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters Monday.
Steinmeier, who will ultimately decide whether to pave the way for a minority government or a new election, appeared to rule out the latter option until further negotiations had been exhausted.
"There would be incomprehension and great concern inside and outside our country, and particularly in our European neighborhood, if the political forces in the biggest and economically strongest country in Europe of all places didn't fulfill their responsibility," he said.
Merkel took power in 2005 and is affectionately known in Germany as “Mutti” — or "Mother." While the 63-year-old remains personally popular, her Christian Democratic Union party lost more seats than expected in September’s election and is now forced to team up with smaller parties to govern.
In the past, forming a coalition hasn’t been too contentious. This time, that’s not the case.
Merkel, a conservative, spent four weeks haggling with the pro-business Free Democrats and the traditionally left-leaning Greens on a new, untried alliance until the Free Democrats walked out of talks Sunday night.
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"She has outsmarted people over and over again"
“Germans have always amused themselves with inability of other European governments to come to stable majorities, and now we are in that situation ourselves, which is quite new,” said Josef Janning, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the head of its Berlin office.
Having served as the voice of reason and caution to its European neighbors in the past, Germany is now the subject of concern just as the 28-nation European Union embarks on complex and tense negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal.
"It's bad news for Europe that the government in Germany will take a little longer," Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra said Monday. "Germany is a very influential country within the E.U., so if they don't have a government and therefore don't have a mandate, it'll be very hard for them to take positions."
"Merkel has failed," party co-leader Alexander Gauland said. "We think it's time for her to go."
However, analysts pointed to Merkel’s political agility and pragmatism.
“Throughout her career people have always underestimated her,” said Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist at the University of Kiel.
“She’s not a presence that lights up a room, but she has outsmarted people over and over again. She’s still extremely popular and there’s no appetite for her to go, at least not in the wider population.”
Many Germans were dismayed about the inability of their political leaders to form a government.
Elmar Thevessen, the deputy editor-in-chief of German broadcaster ZDF, said that when voters went to the ballot box they knew that a multiparty coalition was likely and "compromises would be needed."
"To find them is the utmost responsibility in a democracy,“ Thevessen wrote in a commentary titled "The Spiritless."
He added, "The future is only better than before, if we have the courage to positively shape it."
If the deadlock continues, Steinmeier would have to propose a chancellor to Parliament, who must win a majority of all lawmakers to be elected. Assuming that fails, Parliament has 14 days to elect a candidate of its own choosing by an absolute majority. And if that fails, Steinmeier would then propose a candidate who could be elected by a plurality of lawmakers.
Steinmeier would then have to decide whether to appoint a minority government or dissolve Parliament, triggering an election within 60 days. Merkel's two-party Union bloc is easily the biggest group in Parliament, but is 109 seats short of a majority.
A new election may produce an equally awkward situation, with polls so far suggesting results would be similar to last time.
While Germany’s power vacuum is unusual, Merkel’s difficulties are not a political revolution in the mold of the Brexit referendum or the victory of President Donald Trump, said Dirsus, the political scientist.
“This is not a seismic shift. It’s a sign that Germany is becoming a bit more normal. All around us in Europe we have a certain amount of political instability. Now we are becoming a more normal European country.”
Rachel Elbaum is a London-based editor, producer and writer.
Alastair Jamieson is a London-based reporter, editor and homepage producer for NBC News.
Andy Eckardt, Associated Press and Reuters contributed.