The inconclusive poll has left Schröder and Merkel jockeying for power. By law, either one can become the next chancellor. But, it's the president who can eventually weigh in and name a candidate if talks drag on.
Both have their sights trained on the chancellory
As Germany descends into political confusion following a tight vote that produced no clear winner and has left both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel stake conflicting claims to form the next government, the big question on everyone's lips is "what next?"
Germans hoping to find an answer in the country's complex legal system are however likely to be disappointed. The statutes on German constitutional law contain no provisions for the unfolding political scenario.
Instead, it's political scientists who provide some clues.
"It's not true that the strongest group in parliament automatically has the right to designate the chancellor," Leipzig-based constitutional law expert Christoph Degenhart told German public broadcaster ARD, adding that this information, however, was neither to be found in the law books, nor is it a democratic custom.
No guiding law
Indeed, German constitutional law doesn't even have a paragraph on "a mandate for government-building."
Wolfram Häfling, another political scientist, echoed Degenhart's views. The arguments put forward by Merkel and Schröder aren't "legitimized by the constitution," Häfling told ARD.
Sunday's vote gave Merkel's conservative alliance of Christian Democrats (CDU) and sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), a wafer-thin advantage of three seats in parliament over Schröder's Social Democrats, but no governing majority.
Merkel has used the argument that since the conservative alliance is the biggest group in parliament, she has the right to form the next government.
For his part, Schröder has pointed out that the conservative alliance is actually made up of two separate parties and that his SPD has fared better than each party individually, and thus staked a claim to build the government.
A look at German postwar history confirms that the biggest group in parliament has usually provided the chancellor, but there are exceptions.
For instance, in 1969, the conservatives did garner more votes, but it was Willy Brandt (photo) of the SPD who became chancellor. In informal talks with Walter Scheel, head of the free-market liberal FDP, Brandt managed to forge a SPD-FDP coalition. That government lasted until 1974.
The same thing could happen this time, too, if the SPD manages to hammer out a so-called "traffic-light" coalition with the FDP and the Greens, and Schröder -- the candidate of the second-biggest group in parliament-- stayed on as chancellor.
Even as parties open talks between possible coalition partners this week, experts are already warning that given the fact that several different constellations appear possible, the bargaining could drag on for weeks.
No time limit?
Indeed, in theory, there is no time limit on how much time the parties can take to form a ruling coalition. But they will aim to have completed talks within four weeks and before the first session of parliament, which must take place by October 18.
On this point the law books are much clearer. According to the constitution, the new parliament must meet by the aforementioned date, 30 days after the election. The oldest member of parliament opens the first session, during which the chancellor is traditionally named.
Spotlight on the German president
German President Horst Köhler
This is also where the German President, Horst Köhler, steps in. In the first round of voting, Köhler (photo) must name a chancellor candidate -- and not necessarily from the strongest group in parliament. Theoretically, he could trust the SPD, FDP and the Greens to form a stable governmental coalition and could recommend Schröder as chancellor even though he's the candidate of the second-largest group in parliament.
Köhler's nominee for chancellor must secure an absolute majority in the parliament -- 307 votes. Köhler can, however, nominate a chancellor only for the first round of voting.
If the first candidate does not get a majority, a second round of voting can take place within two weeks, possibly with another candidate standing for chancellor. To be elected, the candidate in this round must also win 307 votes.
A new round of elections?
If the first two rounds of voting don't provide a chancellor, then a third round of voting takes place immediately after the second and the candidate with the most votes wins. If he or she has an absolute majority, Köhler will automatically name him or her chancellor within seven days.
If he or she does not have 307 votes or more, Köhler must make a decision: Either he appoints the chancellor at the head of a minority government, also within seven days, or he dissolves parliament and calls new elections -- a situation that is without precedent in German postwar history.