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Small parties are the kingmakers after German elections

Social Democrats took the most votes, as the dust from Germany's elections settled Monday, but weeks and possibly months of coalition talks still in store could end with conservatives back in power despite their election loss.

(CN) — Germany's national elections on Sunday saw the center-left Social Democrats claim the largest share of votes and retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives suffer a historic defeat, but it will be smaller parties with two very different world views — the pro-environment Greens and pro-business Free Democrats — that will play kingmakers in forming the next government.

The results leave German politics in limbo as potentially lengthy and messy coalition talks begin over who will take over the chancellery and lead Germany's first post-Merkel government.

After 16 years at the helm, Merkel did not stand in the election and will step down once a new government coalesces. She has not said what she plans to do next and there is a chance she could end up taking on a job within the European Union bureaucracy.

The outcome of the Bundestag elections are closely watched and will have far-reaching consequences because Germany is the EU's largest economy and it plays a decisive role in European affairs.

For example, Germany's fiscally conservative governments under Merkel forced poorer southern nations to cut public spending and her mercantilist spirit led the EU to maintain trade ties with the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia.

But the fractured election results leave the EU in limbo, too, and during the campaign no party leader emerged who will quickly take the place of Merkel.

“This result is a little a bit I would say disappointing,” said Yannis Salavopoulos, a Berlin-based political analyst. “I don't think with this constellation Germany will be able to lead Europe to the next stage.”

The Social Democratic Party — Germany's oldest political party and its traditional left-leaning force — picked up the most ballots, about 25.7% of the vote, edging Merkel's bloc of conservatives who got 24.1%. It was the worst result for the Christian Democratic Union and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, in their history.

A combo images all taken in 2021 shows the chancellor top candidates, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, Anna-Lena Baerbock of the Greens and Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats, from right, during different election campaigns in Germany. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, Michael Sohn, File)

With neither side able to claim a clear victory, tricky and politically risky negotiations will now take place to cobble together a coalition commanding a majority in the Bundestag. It could take weeks and even months for a ruling coalition to agree on a common platform. Despite their miserable showing, Merkel's conservatives could still end up in a ruling coalition.

“It is a complicated situation,” said Salavopoulos, providing analysis for VoteWatch Europe, a Brussels think tank. “I don't think it is the situation that Germany would wish to have: the results may put a very difficult exercise to the politicians.”

To form a government, the larger parties will need the votes of the smaller Greens and the Free Democrats, the former with a record high 14.8% of the vote and the latter with 11.5%. It will be the first three-way coalition in German history, barring the highly unlikely scenario where new elections are needed to break an impasse.

Yet there are wide differences between the Greens and Free Democrats. Both are, in many ways, single-issue parties with very different solutions: The Greens argue that only forceful government action can stop catastrophic global warming while the Free Democrats are fixated on lowering taxes and not interfering with the free market. How the two parties can bridge their differences will be pivotal.

There was a chance that the Social Democrats and Greens could form a left-wing German government by joining forces with the Left, a far-left former communist party. But the Left suffered badly and got only about 4.9% of the vote, a big drop from the 8.6% it got in the last elections in 2017.

Thus, the Free Democrats find themselves in a strong position going into the talks. Ideologically, they are more aligned with the conservatives and the party's leader, Christian Lindner, favors a so-called “Jamaica” coalition that includes the CDU/CSU, Greens and Free Democrats. The colors of these three parties are the same as the Jamaican flag, which explains this coalition's nickname. The CDU/CSU are identified by the color black, the Free Democrats by yellow and the Greens obviously by green.

But the Greens may not want to enrage their voter base by joining these business-minded parties that have a history of downplaying climate change. In theory, the Greens are more aligned with the Social Democrats, who favor more government spending to combat climate action. Still, the Greens and Social Democrats will have to offer the Free Democrats a lot of concessions to win their support — and that could mean promises to not raise taxes and allow companies more say in setting the agenda on meeting goals to reduce carbon emissions.

The coalition between the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats also has a nickname: it's called the “traffic light” formula. In this case, the Social Democrats represent the color red.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. Follow him on Twitter

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