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German Social Democrats say Merkel party has lost and should now join the opposition

Preliminary numbers showed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats came in second to the center-left Social Democrats on Sept. 26. (Video: Reuters)

BERLIN — A tussle for the German chancellery was underway on Monday, in the wake of national elections, with the leaders of two parties seeking to negotiate their way to a governing coalition.

Olaf Scholz appears to have the easier path forward. The center-left Social Democrats ran a steady campaign under his leadership and won 26 percent of the vote, a turnaround for a party that started election season in third. But Scholz’s best chance at a majority now depends on whether he can pull together three parties with clashing core policies.

Meanwhile, Armin Laschet declared Monday that he was ready to enter his own talks to form a government, with his center-right Christian Democrats at the top, despite a second-place finish and historically poor result for the party, for which he has received much of the blame.

Whatever the outcome, it could take months to resolve who will be next to lead Germany, making for a long goodbye before Angela Merkel, now the caretaker chancellor, can retire. Scholz asserted Monday that his two-point advantage in the Sunday election gives him a mandate, and the Christian Democrats, who dominated postwar politics, should step aside.

The Christian Democrats and their smaller sister party “did not only lose significant votes, but they also received a message from the people: They shouldn’t be part of the government anymore, but should instead go into the opposition,” Scholz said from party headquarters Monday.

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Having ruled out a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats, Scholz is now instead going for a traffic light coalition with his Social Democrats (associated with red) partnering with the Free Democrats (yellow) and the Greens. He said those three should lead the next gorvernment, noting that each had improved on their past election performance.

But there is nothing in German law that prevents a smaller party from trying to form a majority, and Laschet remained combative as he spoke to reporters on Monday. “No party can draw a clear government mandate from this result,” he said. His Christian Democrats would likewise need to win over the Greens and the Free Democrats to form their preferred Jamaica coalition, an allusion to the colors of the flag.

Even from within his own party, though, Laschet faces skepticism. The center-right conservatives won just 24 percent of the vote on Sunday, according to preliminary numbers. It was the lowest mark for the party since its founding in 1945. Helge Braun, a Christian Democrat and head of the Chancellery in the outgoing government, told German radio that the election result it disappointing. The party also trailed its center-left rivals across two local elections that took place on the same day, with a routing in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

“We have lost this election,” declared Michael Kretschmer, the Christian Democratic leader of the federal state of Saxony, suggesting the current combative party response on Sunday night set “the wrong tone” and may have been reflective of a “wrong general attitude.” Kretschmer told German public radio, “I don’t see a clear governing mandate,” though he cautioned that the Christian Democrats should not be counted out of coalition talks altogether, especially if the risk of a power vacuum looms.

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On Monday, Laschet acknowledged that he was partially responsible for his party’s weak performance, but he said he stands ready to enter coalition talks regardless. He has a lot to lose. The Christian Democrats would likely remove him as leader if it ends up in the opposition. The party would also be reticent to field him in the upcoming state elections in North Rhine Westphalia, where he has been the state leader since 2017.

For their part, both the Greens, who won 15 percent of the vote, and the Free Democrats, who won 12 percent, say they are open to coalition talks. But before they can get together to crown someone for the chancellery, they have to resolve the conflicts between their two parties.

“We have decided to hold preliminary talks with the Greens,” said Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democrats. While both parties are needed in a coalition, they have deep differences in policy positions, he said. “Given this polarization, it makes sense to find a common ground,” Lindner said, noting they could form a “progressive center” of a new coalition.

The Greens will put action on climate change at the core of their demands. But Lindner’s party rails against regulation that could inhibit business and instead advocates a climate policy rooted in technological advancement. In Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, analysts and officials took comfort in a German government that would be pro-European, no matter which party takes charge. Scholz said, “The first topic for German politics will be to form a stronger and more sovereign Europe.”

However, some are concerned that protracted coalition talks in Berlin could delay key E.U. decisions, which the bloc could not make without its wealthiest and most influential member country. “I hope that this will not lead to unnecessary delays,” said Sven Giegold, a German member of the European Parliament from the Greens, during a conference.

Both Laschet and Scholz have said that they hope to have their version of a coalition deal by Christmas. But negotiations have gone on longer in the past. In 2017, it took more than five months, from September to March, to form a new government. That time, efforts to create a “Jamaica coalition” collapsed when Lindner walked out of talks, and the Social Democrats were reluctantly forced back into a coalition with the Christian Democrats.

Forian Neuhof in Berlin and Reis Thebault in Brussels contributed.