The CDU was disappointed, the SPD, jubilant. Early election results surprised the political landscape, and who will rule the country is still anyone's guess.
The votes aren't all counted, but the parties already mull the future
Conservative politicians at first refused to appear before cameras immediately after the results were announced.
They likely wanted to take their time to get on message after early election returns showed their percentage of the vote at just over 35 percent, at least five percentage points below what they had expected going into Sunday's vote. Not even the surprise showing of the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which picked up 10.5 percent of the vote -- it's biggest success ever -- and became the third largest party in the country, will enable the conservatives to reach their goal: a CDU-FDP coalition.
Guido Westerwelle and his FDP recorded their best result in German postwar history.
"They celebrated too early," said Klaus Wowereit, the Social Democratic mayor of Berlin speaking immediately after the results were made public.
And within the SPD party leadership, a very visible Schadenfreude was making its rounds as first party chef Franz Müntefering and then still-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made optimistic speeches at the SPD headquarters. Although the SPD lost votes compared to the previous federal election in 2002, there seemed to be more reason to celebrate the failure of their opponents than to bemoan their losses.
"Those, who sought a change in the chancellory have failed disastrously," Schröder told a crowd of celebrating SPD supporters in Berlin and added that he could not understand how the CDU could interpret a 35 percent vote result as a claim to political leadership.
Spi n begi n s: who wo n ?
Should the early results hold into the night, it would mean the third-worst showing by the Christian Democratic Union in German postwar history. The result is a damming blow to the CDU, which waged an issues-oriented campaign focused on reforming Germany's economy to meet the challenges of globalization.
Half an hour after the results rolled in at 4 p.m. UTC, the spin began at party headquarters. Social Democratic Party chairman Franz Müntefering stepped onto a podium before cheering party members at headquarters in Berlin.
"The results show one thing clearly: the people want Gerhard Schröder as chancellor," he said. "This is a personal defeat for Angela Merkel," he added.
Social Democratic Party leader Franz Muentefering reacts to the loud cheers at party headquarters
Just a few minutes later, Merkel took the stage at CDU headquarters near Berlin's Tiergarten park. The crowd gathered there showered her with applause and scattered "Angie" shouts. The candidate smiled, but admitted to being disappointed.
Coalitio n questio n murkier
"I have to say we expected a better result," Merkel said. "But we are the strongest party in Germany and red-green has been voted out!"
Merkel said that her party, which just out-edged the SPD by only a few percentage points, has been given the responsibility of forming a new government. What that government will look like is anyone's guess.
In terms of the SPD, the coalition question isn't any more certain. The only clear guidelines given so far were regarding who would not be considered for a coalition. Speaking at about 5 p.m. UTC, Müntefering said his party would not form a coalition with the Left Party, which was recently formed by disgruntled SPD members in response to the government's reform plans. A coalition with the FDP, on the other hand, is still not entirely out of the question -- at least from the SPD stand point.
If the SPD, Greens and FDP joined forces it would be enough to form a majority coalition. The FDP, however, has rejected building a coalition with the SPD. Speaking on German public television in a post-election debate of party leaders, Schröder also ruled out a so-called "grand coalition" of SPD and CDU/CSU under the leadership of Angela Merkel.
But for the CDU, the only real viable option currently available if they want to build the next government is to form a grand coalition with the SPD. So far, that option has not been entirely ruled out, although only about 36 percent of the CDU voters have said they would endorse such a coalition.
"We are ready to talk with all democratic parties," said Merkel, in a television interview. The only coalition she has ruled out is the Left Party, which garnered 8.2 percent of the vote.
The last time the CDU and SPD formed a grand coalition was from 1966 to 1969 under Ludwig Erhard.