German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that she was "very skeptical" about leading a minority government if no coalition could be formed to run Europe's biggest economy and thinks a new election would be a better solution.
Her comments came after the country's president appealed to political leaders to rethink their positions and try again to form a new government after coalition talks between Merkel's conservatives and two parties collapsed. But there was little immediate indication his call would be heeded, and a new election looked increasingly likely.
The conservative Merkel spent four weeks haggling with the pro-business Free Democrats and the traditionally left-leaning Greens on a new, untried governing coalition until the Free Democrats walked out Sunday night.
Her partners in the outgoing government, the center-left Social Democrats, said Monday they would not join a new Merkel administration, a stance the party has repeated time and again since it slumped to a disastrous defeat in Germany's Sept. 24 election. No other politically plausible combination of parties has a majority in parliament.
"We now face a situation that we haven't had in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, so in nearly 70 years," President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters after meeting Merkel. It is Steinmeier who will have to decide whether to pave the way for a minority government or a new election.
"This is the moment at which all parties should pause and reconsider their position," he said. "I expect from everyone readiness to talk, in order to make the formation of a government possible in the foreseeable future."
Steinmeier said he will meet leaders of all the parties involved in the failed talks, as well as others, in the coming days.
Merkel said the situation was "regrettable" but insisted that "we nevertheless have stability in our country." She deferred to Steinmeier on the next steps.
It's likely to be a while before the situation is resolved.
If neither the Free Democrats nor the Social Democrats budge, that leaves as the only options another election or a minority government — a setup that has never been tried in post-World War II Germany. The German Constitution doesn't allow parliament to dissolve itself, so the decision lies with Steinmeier.
"I don't have a minority government in my plans," Merkel said in an interview Monday with ARD public television's Brennpunkt program. "I don't want to say never today, but I am very skeptical and I think that new elections would then be the better way."
To get to either destination, the president would first have to propose a chancellor to parliament, who must win a majority of all lawmakers to be elected. Assuming that fails, parliament has 14 days to elect a candidate of its own choosing by an absolute majority. And if that fails, Steinmeier would then propose a candidate who could be elected by a plurality of lawmakers.
Steinmeier would then have to decide whether to appoint a minority government or dissolve parliament, triggering an election within 60 days. Merkel's two-party Union bloc is easily the biggest group in parliament, but is 109 seats short of a majority.
A new election may produce an equally awkward situation, with polls so far suggesting results would be similar to last time.
Merkel made clear that her pre-election pledge to serve another full term stands and indicated that she was ready to run again.
"I was always asked in the election campaign, 'Will you be ready to serve Germany as chancellor for four years?'" Merkel said. "Two months have passed (since the election), so it would be very strange...to say that what I told voters during the whole election campaign doesn't stand anymore."
The Social Democrats' leader, Martin Schulz, insisted the outgoing government "got the red card" from voters. He said his party is "not available" for a repeat, even without Merkel in charge, and that a minority government "is not practicable in Germany."
The nationalist Alternative for Germany, which emerged from September's election as the third-biggest party, welcomed the coalition debacle.
"Merkel has failed," party co-leader Alexander Gauland said. "We think it's time for her to go."
Meanwhile, the blame game was in full swing.
The Free Democrats' leader, Christian Lindner, defended ending the talks, telling reporters "we would have had to abandon our fundamental positions" to join a government with the conservatives and Greens.
Lindner said proposals on migration policies, financial issues and education were too far removed from the "change in policies" Germans wanted.
Social Democrats' leader Schulz said the negotiating parties had put Germany "in a difficult situation." Senior Free Democrat Wolfgang Kubicki said that "if there are new elections, it's because of the Social Democrats, not because of us."
Other European countries expressed concern, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying that "it's not in our interest for it to get tense."
Steinmeier underlined those worries.
"There would be incomprehension and great concern inside and outside our country, and particularly in our European neighborhood, if the political forces in the biggest and economically strongest country in Europe of all places didn't fulfill their responsibility," he said.
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