EXPLAINER: How and when Germany will form a new government

Picture taken while turning the camera shows the Reichstag building with the German parliament in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German elections are held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Caption
Picture taken while turning the camera shows the Reichstag building with the German parliament in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German elections are held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Credit: Michael Probst

Credit: Michael Probst

Germany’s voters have delivered their verdict

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's voters have delivered their verdict. Now it's up to party leaders to thrash out who will succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel after 16 years in office and with what political priorities.

The shape of Germany's new Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, is now clear. But there are majorities for three more or less plausible new coalition governments, and it could take weeks or months to put a new administration in place. Here's a look at how the process works.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The first-placed party typically leads German governments, but that isn't always the case. It can end up in opposition if other parties form a coalition without it. That happened in 1976 and 1980, when then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt stayed in office although his party finished second.

There is no referee for the process of forming a new government, and no set time limit. Parties hold exploratory talks to determine who they have most common ground with, and one combination of parties then moves on to formal coalition talks.

Those negotiations typically produce a detailed coalition agreement setting out the new government's plans. That will typically need approval at least from congresses of the parties involved. The center-left Social Democrats, who emerged from Sunday's election as the strongest party, held ballots of their entire membership in 2013 and 2018 to sign off on agreements to join Merkel's center-right Union bloc as its junior partner in government.

Once a coalition is ready, Germany’s president nominates to the Bundestag a candidate for chancellor, who needs a majority of all members to be elected.

If two attempts to elect a chancellor with a majority fail, the constitution allows for the president to appoint the candidate who wins the most votes in a third vote as chancellor or to dissolve the Bundestag and hold a new national election. That has never yet happened.

WHEN WILL MERKEL STEP DOWN?

Merkel and her outgoing government will remain in office in a caretaker capacity until the Bundestag elects her successor.

The outgoing coalition holds the record for the longest time taken to form a government, after an attempt to form an alternative alliance collapsed. The Bundestag elected Merkel for her fourth term on March 14, 2018 — nearly six months after German voters had their say on Sept. 24, 2017.

One side-effect of a very long coalition-building process might be to add another aspect to Merkel's legacy. Among democratic Germany's post-World War II leaders, she has served longer than all but Helmut Kohl, who led the country to reunification during his 1982-98 tenure. She would overtake even him if she is still in office on Dec. 17.

WHAT PARTIES ARE INVOLVED?

Four parties are potentially in play to form the new government. The outcome will almost certainly be a coalition that has a majority of the seats in parliament. Germany has no tradition of minority governments, which are generally viewed as unstable and undesirable.

The Social Democrats of outgoing finance minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz are the biggest party, but even they are far short of a majority with 206 of the 735 seats in parliament.

They want to build a coalition with the environmentalist Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats. The Union bloc under Merkel's would-be successor, Armin Laschet, could also form a government with those two parties. The former is known in Germany as a “traffic light” coalition, after the parties' colors of red, green and yellow; a Union-led alliance is labeled a “Jamaica” coalition because the party colors of black, green and yellow reflect that country's flag. Both have been tried successfully in German state governments, but not at national level.

Agreeing on either may not be easy because the Greens in recent decades have tended to ally themselves with the Social Democrats, and the Free Democrats with the Union. The two parties have different priorities on fighting climate change, which the Greens want to put at the center of the new government's agenda, and on how to handle the economy as it recovers from the pandemic.

The Free Democrats and Union oppose raising taxes and loosening Germany's tight rules on running up public debt. The Social Democrats and Greens want to raise taxes for top earners and increase the minimum wage.

In Europe, the Union and Free Democrats have tended to take a stricter line on financial aid to struggling countries. But either alliance is unlikely to be troubled by huge foreign policy differences, though the Greens favor a tougher line toward China and Russia, and oppose the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gas to Germany.

There is one alternative to a “traffic light” or “Jamaica” coalition — a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the Union and Social Democrats, but this time under the latter's leadership. This combination of rivals has run Germany for 12 years of Merkel’s 16-year tenure and has often been marred by squabbling. There is little appetite for it.

___

Follow AP's coverage of Germany's election at https://apnews.com/hub/germany-election

Clouds drift over the Reichstag building with the German parliament in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German elections are held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Caption
Clouds drift over the Reichstag building with the German parliament in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. German elections are held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Credit: Michael Probst

Credit: Michael Probst

Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), attends a press statement at the party's headquarter in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. The center-left Social Democrats have won the biggest share of the vote in Germany's national election. They narrowly beat outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Union bloc in a closely fought race that will determine who succeeds the long-time leader at the helm of Europe's biggest economy. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Caption
Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), attends a press statement at the party's headquarter in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. The center-left Social Democrats have won the biggest share of the vote in Germany's national election. They narrowly beat outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Union bloc in a closely fought race that will determine who succeeds the long-time leader at the helm of Europe's biggest economy. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Credit: Michael Sohn

Credit: Michael Sohn

Armin Laschet, Federal Chairman of the CDU, top candidate of his party for Chancellor waves as he returns to Konrad Adenauer House after a TV appearance in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc in Germany's parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Michael Kappeler/DPA via AP)
Caption
Armin Laschet, Federal Chairman of the CDU, top candidate of his party for Chancellor waves as he returns to Konrad Adenauer House after a TV appearance in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc in Germany's parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (Michael Kappeler/DPA via AP)

Credit: Michael Kappeler

Credit: Michael Kappeler

Co-chairwoman of the Greens and candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock, right, and co-party leader Robert Habeck attend their party leadership meeting, in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. Following Sunday's election leaders of the German parties were meeting Monday to digest a result that saw Merkel’s Union bloc slump to its worst-ever result in a national election and appeared to put the keys to power in the hands of two opposition parties. Both Social Democrat Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet, the candidate of Merkel's party, laid a claim to leading the next government. (Andreas Gebert/Pool via AP)
Caption
Co-chairwoman of the Greens and candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock, right, and co-party leader Robert Habeck attend their party leadership meeting, in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. Following Sunday's election leaders of the German parties were meeting Monday to digest a result that saw Merkel’s Union bloc slump to its worst-ever result in a national election and appeared to put the keys to power in the hands of two opposition parties. Both Social Democrat Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet, the candidate of Merkel's party, laid a claim to leading the next government. (Andreas Gebert/Pool via AP)

Credit: Andreas Geber

Credit: Andreas Geber

Christian Lindner, FDP party leader, leaves after attending a TV broadcast on the parliamentary elections in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc in Germany's parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Caption
Christian Lindner, FDP party leader, leaves after attending a TV broadcast on the parliamentary elections in Berlin, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Exit polls show the center-left Social Democrats in a very close race with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc in Germany's parliamentary election, which will determine who succeeds the longtime leader after 16 years in power. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Credit: Michael Probst

Credit: Michael Probst