Germany braced for a period of political unpredictability Monday after the Social Democrats narrowly won a general election but faced a rival claim to power from outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative camp.
For a country synonymous with stability after 16 years of Merkel's steady leadership, the coming weeks and months promise to be a rocky ride as both Finance Minister Olaf Scholz's SPD and the conservatives led by Armin Laschet scramble for coalition partners.
The power struggle risks putting Germany out of play in the international scene for some time, even though the upcoming COP26 climate summit will be demanding action from the world's biggest powers.
Europe's biggest economy will also hold the presidency of the G7 club of rich nations next year, and will need a government capable of setting the international agenda.
European markets nevertheless heaved a sigh of relief, climbing after the tight results, predicting that a government led by either the SPD or the CDU would bring continuity in economic policy.
Preliminary official results showed that the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) narrowly won the vote at 25.7 percent, while Merkel's centre-right CDU-CSU bloc sunk to a historic low of 24.1 percent.
The Green party placed third at 14.8 percent, its best result yet but still short of expectations.
Laschet, 60, and Scholz, 63, both said their goal was to have a new government in place before Christmas.
Citizens "want a change in government," said Scholz, who ran an error-free campaign that cast him as a safe pair of hands, contrasting sharply with Laschet's series of gaffes.
"The poker game for power begins," wrote Der Spiegel weekly.
The Sueddeutsche newspaper said the vote revealed that "Germans longed for change, but lost their nerve a bit."
In the fractured political landscape of the post-Merkel era, the most likely outcome will be a three-way alliance -- ending the post-war tradition of two-party coalition governments.
Scholz and Laschet will be looking to the Greens and the liberal, pro-business FDP party (11.5 percent) to cobble together a parliamentary majority.
The two kingmakers however are not natural bedfellows, diverging on issues like tax hikes and public investment in climate protection.
Green chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock -- whose party hoped to do better with the climate crisis a top voter concern this year -- stayed vague about her preferred tie-up, but said it was time for "a fresh start" in the country of 83 million people.
FDP leader Christian Lindner suggested speeding up the process by sitting down with the Greens first before talking with the two bigger parties.
Lindner has signalled a preference for a coalition with the CDU-CSU and the Greens, dubbed "Jamaica" in a nod to the colours of each party's logo -- black, green and gold -- which are the same as the Jamaican flag.
But he has also not ruled out a "traffic light" constellation with the SPD and the Greens, a reference to the party colours of red, green and yellow.
Laschet also evoked a sense of urgency, pointing to Germany's G7 presidency next year.
"The new government must come into office soon," he said, "definitely before Christmas".
Neither the SPD nor the CDU-CSU want a repeat of the left-right "grand coalition" that has featured in three of Merkel's four governments.
Scholz said Monday that the conservatives belong in "the opposition" after their loss.
"The CDU and CSU have not only significantly lost votes, but they have essentially received the message from citizens -- they should no longer be in government, but should go into the opposition," said Scholz.
No party will team up with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose score fell to 10.3 percent from nearly 13 percent at the last election in 2017.
The far-left Linke party fell below the five-percent threshold but nonetheless scraped into parliament thanks to three direct mandates.
Until the complex coalition negotiations are settled, Merkel will stay on in a caretaker capacity.
Should the talks last beyond December 17, she would overtake Helmut Kohl as Germany's longest-serving chancellor since World War II.
Merkel, who chose not to stand for a fifth term, remains Germany's most popular politician.
But her legacy risks being tarnished by the CDU-CSU's poor showing in Sunday's election, which saw the bloc fall below 30 percent for the first time in its seven-decade history.
CDU supporter Alfons Thesing, 84, put his finger on the problem.
"It hurts a lot that Merkel is no longer there," he told AFP.
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