German chancellor Angela Merkel is facing an uncertain political future after talks to form a coalition government – and secure her a fourth term – collapsed.
Fresh elections are likely after the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) walked out just before midnight on Sunday following four weeks of exploratory talks with Dr Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), her Bavarian (CSU) allies and the Green Party.
"I will contact the president and we will see how things develop," said a clearly exhausted Dr Merkel, departing the talks. "It is a day to think long and hard about where things go now . . . and as acting chancellor I will do everything to ensure Germany is led well through these difficult days."
FDP negotiators walked out of what they described as "chaotic" talks, with party leader Christian Lindner said it was "better not to govern than govern badly".
But all other parties attacked the liberals for deliberately collapsing the talks in a bid to boost its support in any snap election.
FDP rivals expressed concern that Mr Lindner’s high-risk tactic could result in a further boost in support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which polled almost 13 per cent in the September 24th election.
That vote was viewed as a slap in the face for the outgoing coalition of Dr Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). After disastrous results of historic proportions, the SPD headed for the opposition benches. That left as last option a four-way coalition – dubbed “Jamaica” because the negotiating parties’ colours coincided with the island’s flag.
Two months on, however, that untested alliance has hit the wall meaning Germany and Europe face an extended period of insecurity.
When the Bundestag meets for its second sitting on Tuesday, still without a government, acting chancellor Dr Merkel has no legal means to table a motion of no confidence to trigger fresh elections.
Instead article 63 of the post-war Basic Law requires three attempts to elect a new chancellor – a humiliating process for Dr Merkel if, as they signalled on Monday morning, none of the other parties are prepared to back her.
“It looks very much like fresh elections,” said Jürgen Trittin, a senior Green Party member involved in the coalition talks. He suggested the FDP was “deeply traumatised” by its term in office with Dr Merkel which ended in its 2013 election expulsion from the Bundestag.
“They don’t want to repeat that and, afraid of death, committed suicide,” he said.
Others suggested the walk-out was a high-risk FDP attempt to weaken Dr Merkel and forced fresh elections in which the liberals would pull back protest voters from the AfD.
But political analysts suggested the FDP's move could blow up in its face. Dr Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said: "There are politicians who are strong with their back to the wall, why should Merkel not be one of those?"
For Dr Merkel there is only one other possible option of avoiding fresh elections: wooing back the SPD into office for a third grand coalition.
But senior SPD figures signalled on Monday morning that eight years as Dr Merkel’s junior partner since 2005 was enough.
"We are not Germany's [parliamentary] majority reserve," said Andrea Nahles, SPD Bundestag leader.