BERLIN—Germany's voters split so evenly in Sunday's parliamentary elections that it was impossible to tell who had won or how the various rival parties might organize coalitions to establish a new government.
Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats appeared to hold a narrow lead, but short of a majority, according to preliminary results and exit polls.
Incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats, widely expected to be routed until the past few days, finished in a dead heat, leading Schroeder to refuse to concede defeat and even to claim that he might hold onto power if coalition talks go well.
In short, Germany's election failed to create either a government or a clear path to a new governing coalition, with no clear winners or losers. That seems to ensure that the future of the European Union's largest and richest nation will be determined this week in a series of back-room meetings between four of Germany's five largest political parties.
Analysts had feared just such inconclusive results at a time when the nation needs clear leadership to help get a badly stumbling economy back on track. Unemployment in Germany hovers around 11 percent. Despite being the largest economy in the 25-nation European Union, its growth rate is the slowest. Both major parties accept the need for continued economic reforms.
This summer Chancellor Schroeder called for new elections a year ahead of schedule after his Social Democrats lost control of statehouses throughout the nation. He said he feared that his ruling coalition with the Green Party had lost the confidence of the German people.
On Sunday, according to preliminary results, his party apparently culled 34 percent of the vote, while the Greens pulled in about 8 percent.
The Christian Democrat Party under Merkel, who polls this summer projected would be the first female German chancellor, got about 35 percent of the vote, while the Liberal Party, presumed to be their partner in a new ruling coalition, got about 10 percent of the vote.
The wild card in this election remains the state of Saxony, which had to delay elections for two weeks because of the death of a candidate. Polls indicate that Saxony would back the Christian Democrats.
The preliminary results Sunday prompted both Merkel and Schroeder to crow about their new "mandate" from the voters, and each claimed their right to be chancellor of the new government.
But while the estimated combined 45 percent vote for the conservative challengers leaves them the stronger of the two camps, compared to 42 percent for the current coalition, neither could govern without the other's help.
Merkel had been thought to have an unassailable lead in the election until she talked about making it easier to fire people, decreasing non-wage employee costs such as high unemployment payments and even the need for a controversial flat tax.
Still, both camps pledged deeper economic reforms.
After Sunday's vote, the big questions became would the pro-business, pro-reform Liberal Party break ranks and join the existing Social Democrat/Green coalition? Or would the Green Party want to stay in power enough to join with their traditional conservative enemies in a new coalition?
Schroeder strongly hinted that he hoped to lure the Liberals, noting that his new government would push for both economic reforms and a better environment.
And Schroeder insisted that he should remain chancellor. He was also harshly critical of Merkel's party: "They have failed and failed miserably. I don't see how they can claim political leadership on the back of these disastrous election results."
Liberal Party leaders were already appearing on German television Sunday night saying they wouldn't settle for anything less than true change in the government.
Merkel said it was clear that the Social Democrats "have been voted out of office, and that is good news. We, quite clearly, have a mandate."
However, Merkel pledged to negotiate with all parties, except the New Left, which collected about 8 percent of the vote but was quickly dismissed by both camps.
Schroeder and Merkel also said they would hold discussions with each other to see if a so-called "Grand Coalition" is possible. Schroeder said he would not accept such a partnership unless he led it. Christian Democrat leaders noted that Schroeder had lost his government and needed to step aside.
If no one budges, it could get much worse, warned political scientist Karl Rudolf Korte, speaking on German television station ARD.
"I can't rule out new elections," Korte said. "If a stable government can't be formed, the constitution allows for that."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050915 Election cost, 20050913 Poll GER, 20050902 GER chancellors, 20050902 Parliament GER, 20050901 Schroeder era, 20050902 Chancellor cand
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