BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel's attempt to put together a previously untried government with two smaller and ideologically diverse parties has collapsed. Germany's election on Sept. 24 left only two politically plausible combinations with a majority in parliament, and the breakdown of coalition talks Sunday night appears to have removed one of those — a coalition of Merkel's conservative Union bloc, the pro-business Free Democrats and the traditionally left-leaning Greens.
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS?
Merkel could seek a repeat of her outgoing "grand coalition" government with the center-left Social Democrats, Germany's second-biggest party. However, they have said since a disastrous election result in September that they're determined to go into opposition. That would leave a minority government led by Merkel's conservatives — which hasn't previously been tried in post-World War II Germany — or new elections.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The road to either a minority government or new elections involves President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The German parliament can't dissolve itself and Merkel can't call a confidence vote as a caretaker chancellor. Steinmeier would first have to propose a chancellor to parliament, who must win a majority of all lawmakers to be elected. If that fails, parliament has 14 days to elect a candidate of its own choosing, again by an absolute majority. And if that fails, Steinmeier would propose a candidate who could be elected by a plurality of votes. Steinmeier would then have to decide whether to appoint a minority government or dissolve parliament, triggering an election within 60 days.
WHO'S IN CHARGE FOR NOW?
Merkel's outgoing coalition government with the Social Democrats remains in place on a caretaker basis until the current parliament has elected a chancellor or a new election is held. There is no constitutional limit on how long a caretaker government can remain in place. The longest it has taken so far from an election to a new government being sworn in is 86 days, in 2013.
WHY IS THE SITUATION SO COMPLICATED?
Germany's political landscape has become increasingly crowded since the 1970s, when there were only three political groups in parliament. There are now six. That has made forming traditional center-left and center-right alliances increasingly difficult.
HAS MERKEL HAD TOUGH MOMENTS BEFORE?
Merkel has shown a talent for overcoming setbacks in 12 years as chancellor. That started right at the beginning, when she nearly blew a huge poll lead to barely win the 2005 election, yet still emerged as German leader. An abrupt about-turn in 2011, when she decided to accelerate Germany's exit from nuclear energy, caused short-term turbulence but no long-term damage. Her decision in 2015 to allow in large numbers of asylum-seekers caused major political friction, but she still emerged as her party's uncontested candidate for a fourth term. She has no single obvious successor.