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Remember the forecast this year that whatever happens in the German elections, Angela Merkel would win one way or the other? After the collapse of the coalition talks on Sunday evening, this forecast, too, has ended where most other political forecasts have gone in the past few years. 

It is premature to write Ms Merkel’s political obituary, but we are not too far from this point. She is one of Germany’s most seasoned politicians. But during her 12-year reign, she has managed to destroy all her junior coalition partners. The SPD, once the big beast of German politics, now lingers at 20 per cent in the polls.

The liberal FDP, which triggered the collapse of the talks, is still reeling from the disastrous experience as a junior coalition partner with Ms Merkel between 2009 and 2013. Christian Lindner, FDP chairman, said there was simply no trust. German parties now prefer to be in opposition than to be in government with her. 

If you think through all the options under the German constitution, it is hard now to envisage one in which Ms Merkel remains as chancellor beyond a few months. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier may call on the FDP to reverse its decision. But this will change nothing.

He might call on the SPD to change its mind. But the party has already said it is not available for another grand coalition, despite being under enormous pressure to abandon its opposition as a sacrifice for political stability. The SPD would be mad to yield; it would drive more of its voters to the extreme parties.

Whether a coalition is formed or not, Mr Steinmeier will have no choice but to nominate Ms Merkel as chancellor, simply because the CDU, and its sister party, the Bavarian CSU, have the largest share of the vote. Then follows three rounds of voting. In the first two, the candidate requires an absolute majority. In the third round a relative majority suffices. Ms Merkel would easily win in the final vote. 

At this point, Mr Steinmeier can refuse to appoint Ms Merkel on the grounds that her government would not be stable, leading to a new round of elections within 60 days. Alternatively, he could appoint Ms Merkel chancellor of a minority government. I am sure that he and Ms Merkel will seriously consider this option, but the CDU/CSU would only have about a third of the seats in the Bundestag.

Ms Merkel could, of course, try to assemble majorities for each piece of legislation — on Europe with the SPD, on the environment with the Greens. Minority governments can be surprisingly stable, as we see in Spain and, yes, in the UK, too. But they need a stable support base, and I doubt very much that the opposition parties will allow her to play that game for long.

So one way or the other, Germany is likely to have new elections in 2018. Would Ms Merkel run again? Would the CDU let her? That will depend on how the public reacts to recent events. Since the elections, the CDU and CSU have lost support in the opinion polls. The FDP managed to gain a little. So did the rightwing AfD.

The SPD has weakened but could rebound under new leadership. If there were a new election, Martin Schulz might step aside in favour of Andrea Nahles, the newly elected SPD leader in the Bundestag, or Manuela Schwesig, the prime minister of the north-eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Another possibility would be Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg. If the SPD were to improve on its share of the vote, and if the CDU/CSU were to lose, the two parties could perhaps form a coalition of equals. 

The only constellation where Ms Merkel could re-emerge as a political leader would require a rapid shift in popular support for the CDU and for her in particular. If she were to fight the election, and improve on the CDU’s dismal result by a good margin, it would become harder for the FDP to continue to resist entering into a coalition. 

There are too many potential scenarios to make any firm predictions. But the scenario in which Ms Merkel re-emerges as German chancellor for another four years has a low probability. So if you are one of those who consider her the leader of the western world, it is time to look somewhere else.

munchau@eurointelligence.com

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