BERLIN (AP) — Germany, Europe's largest economy and anchor of stability, is facing the prospect of months of political uncertainty after Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives were unable to form a coalition with two smaller parties, raising the likelihood of new elections.
Merkel said Monday that she was "very skeptical" about trying to forge ahead with a minority government — a setup that has never been tried in post-World War II Germany — after talks with the left-leaning Greens and pro-business Free Democrats broke down hours earlier. Her current coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrat party, has remained adamant it will go into opposition after a disastrous result in September's election.
Even if it comes to new elections, a poll Monday for the broadcaster RTL indicated little change in support for the various parties, suggesting there would be similarly difficult prospects in forming a coalition.
Immediately after the talks broke down just before midnight Sunday, Merkel pledged she would do everything possible to ensure Germany would continue to be well led. Later she said that while the situation was regrettable, "we nevertheless have stability in our country."
Her comments came after President Frank-Walter Steinmeier appealed to political leaders to rethink their positions and try again to form a new government.
"We now face a situation that we haven't had in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, so in nearly 70 years," Steinmeier told reporters after meeting Merkel. It is Steinmeier who will have to decide whether to pave the way for a minority government or call 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."
Merkel spent four weeks haggling with the Free Democrats and the Greens on a new, untried governing coalition until the Free Democrats walked out Sunday night.
Martin Schulz, the leader of her current coalition partner, the Social Democrats, reiterated Monday that his party was "not available" for a repeat, even without Merkel in charge, and that a minority government "is not practicable in Germany."
Steinmeier said he will meet leaders of all the parties involved in the failed talks, as well as others, in the coming days.
It's likely to be months 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. 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. "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.
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 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. He pointed in particular to compromises his party would have had to have made on key issues like migration policies, financial issues and education.
Social Democrats' leader Schulz said the negotiating parties had put Germany "in a difficult situation." To which the senior Free Democrat, Wolfgang Kubicki, replied: "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.
Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.