THE MOST important German election in decades has produced a dismal result for Germany, the European Union and the transatlantic alliance. As expected, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democrats failed in his attempt to win a new mandate, but his principal opponent, Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Party, also did not win enough support to form a government. The two big German parties combined received the lowest percentage of votes in 50 years, and the balance of power in Parliament will be held by three smaller factions -- one of which, the new Left Party, is a noxious mix of anti-globalization populists and former East Bloc communists.

Mr. Schroeder has further fouled this messy situation with arrogant and undemocratic behavior. Though he finished in second place with 34 percent of the vote, and his coalition lost 33 of the 306 seats it held in the Bundestag, the chancellor loudly claimed victory and is trying to bully his way back into office. German commentators are calling his power play "delusional" and "grotesque," but the political situation is so unsettled that its success cannot be ruled out.

It's difficult to imagine a worse outcome to the election than a new term for Mr. Schroeder, whose habitual demagoguery and opportunism have poisoned not only German politics but also the European Union and U.S.-German relations. Yet the other possibilities aren't much better. The most likely is a "grand coalition" between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that would exclude Mr. Schroeder, and possibly also Ms. Merkel, who is trying to be the first woman and the first citizen of the former East Germany to become chancellor. Alternatively, one of the large parties could create a coalition including a small party on the opposite side of the political spectrum, alignments as bizarre as the nicknames -- "stoplight" and "Jamaica" -- they have been given.

Whatever the final result, the chances that Germany will continue the economic reforms that Mr. Schroeder cautiously began don't seem great. Both major candidates seem to have been punished by voters for advocating change: Mr. Schroeder for his half-steps and Ms. Merkel for promising more. The two parties together might agree to force through the further reforms they know the country needs, but it is just as likely they will compromise by doing nothing. It also seems unlikely that a weak German government will support needed reforms for the European Union, which itself is reeling from French voters' rejection of a new constitution in May.

American conservatives and internationalists might be tempted to take quiet satisfaction from the political disarray in the two big European states that have worked hardest in the past five years to thwart U.S. policies and establish Europe as a rival power to the United States. That would be shortsighted. In fact, Mr. Schroeder and his French ally, Jacques Chirac, were never likely to succeed in creating a European counterweight, and the weakness of Germany and France will only make them less able to support the United States in key strategic matters on which there is a transatlantic consensus, such as preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. About the best that Americans, and Germans, can hope for is that the tenure of the new government will be relatively brief -- and that the next election will produce a more decisive result.