Uncertain start to post-Merkel era after close German vote

German Social Democratic Party, SPD, party leaders Saskia Esken, right, and Norbert Walter-Borjans, center, applaud  to the party's candidate for chancellery Olaf Scholz as he arrives at the meeting of the SPD Federal Executive Committee 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. (Wolfgang Kumm/dpa via AP)
Caption
German Social Democratic Party, SPD, party leaders Saskia Esken, right, and Norbert Walter-Borjans, center, applaud to the party's candidate for chancellery Olaf Scholz as he arrives at the meeting of the SPD Federal Executive Committee 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. (Wolfgang Kumm/dpa via AP)

Credit: Wolfgang Kumm

Credit: Wolfgang Kumm

The party that narrowly beat outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc is pushing for a quick agreement on a coalition government, but Europe’s biggest economy could still be in for weeks of uncertainty after an election that failed to set a clear direction

BERLIN (AP) — The party that narrowly beat outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc pushed Monday for a quick agreement on a coalition government, but Europe’s biggest economy could still be in for weeks of uncertainty after an election that failed to set a clear direction.

Olaf Scholz, the candidate of the center-left Social Democrats, called for Merkel's center-right Union bloc to go into opposition after its worst-ever result in a national election. Both parties finished with well under 30% of the vote, and that appeared to put the keys to power in the hands of two opposition parties — raising questions over the stability of a future government.

Armin Laschet, the Union’s candidate, rejected the idea that the election gave any party a clear mandate and made clear he still hopes to lead a new government. But he sounded considerably less confident Monday than he did a day earlier, when he said his bloc would do “everything we can” to form one — and some allies hinted at skepticism that would happen.

Whoever becomes chancellor will lead Germany into a new era. During Merkel’s 16 years in office, she was seen abroad not just as Germany’s leader but in many ways as Europe’s, helping steer the European Union through a series of financial and political crises and ensuring her country maintained a high profile on the international stage. It remains to be seen whether the next chancellor will match her global standing.

The unclear result, combined with an upcoming French presidential election in April, creates uncertainty — at least for now — in the two economic and political powers at the center of the EU, just as the bloc struggles with how to counter Russia and China, revamp its relationship with the United States and address questions about its future from populist leaders in eastern countries.

Scholz, the current finance minister and vice chancellor, pulled his party out of a long poll slump to win on Sunday. Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, stumbled in a campaign that was strewn with missteps.

But the kingmakers are likely to be the two prospective junior partners in any coalition, the environmentalist Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats. The Greens traditionally lean toward the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats toward the Union, but neither ruled out going the other way.

“Voters have spoken very clearly,” Scholz said Monday. “They strengthened three parties — the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats — so this is the visible mandate the citizens of this country have given: These three parties should lead the next government.”

Laschet said his party also wants to lead a coalition with the two smaller parties. The only other option that would have a parliamentary majority is a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the Union and Social Democrats. That is the combination that has run Germany for 12 years of Merkel’s 16-year tenure but has often been marred by squabbling, and there is little appetite for it now.

Scholz and others were keen to dispel concerns that lengthy haggling and a new, multiparty government would mean unstable leadership in Europe’s biggest economy.

“My idea is that we will be very fast in getting a result for this government, and it should be before Christmas if possible,” Scholz told reporters in Berlin. “Germany always has coalition governments, and it was always stable.”

Scholz, an experienced and pragmatic politician whose calm, no-frills style is in some ways reminiscent of Merkel’s, pointed to continuity in foreign policy. He said a priority will be “to form a stronger and more sovereign European Union.”

“But doing so means also to work very hard on the good relationship between ... the European Union and the United States,” he added. “The trans-Atlantic partnership is of (the) essence for us in Germany ... and so you can rely on continuity in this question.”

Scholz made clear that the rival Union bloc should bow out of government. He said the bloc “received the message from citizens that they should no longer be in government, but go into opposition.”

But Laschet held out the possibility that he might form a coalition despite what he called “painful losses,” for which he said he bears a “personal share” of the blame.

Other senior center-right figures were more skeptical.

Markus Soeder, the more popular rival Laschet beat to secure the Union’s nomination to run for chancellor, said a second-place party has “no entitlement” to form a government, “so we can only make an offer.” He said there can’t be an alliance with the Greens and Free Democrats “at any price.”

Laschet also faces calls from within his own party to resign after a disastrous election night that saw the Union bloc lose dozens of parliamentary seats — including the constituency Merkel had held since 1990.

The Greens made significant gains in the election to finish third but fell far short of their original aim of taking the chancellery, while the Free Democrats improved slightly on a good result from 2017.

Merkel’s outgoing government will remain in office until a successor is sworn in, a process that can take weeks or even months. Merkel announced in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term.

The Free Democrats and Greens indicated they plan to speak to each other first before entertaining approaches from the bigger parties. The Free Democrats’ leader, Christian Lindner, said he wants to discuss with the Greens whether they could “become the progressive center of a new coalition, for all our differences.”

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Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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

Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), speaks during a press conference at the party's headquarters 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), speaks during a press conference at the party's headquarters 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

Candidate for chancellor of the Christian Union parties block Armin Laschet brief the media after a leaders meeting of his Christian Democratic Union party CDU at the headquarters in Berlin, 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. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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Candidate for chancellor of the Christian Union parties block Armin Laschet brief the media after a leaders meeting of his Christian Democratic Union party CDU at the headquarters in Berlin, 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. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Credit: Martin Meissner

Credit: Martin Meissner

Front from left, Franziska Giffey, top candidate of the SPD for Mayor of the German city of Berlin, Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and Manuela Schwesig, member of the SPD and governor of the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, pose with flowers 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)
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Front from left, Franziska Giffey, top candidate of the SPD for Mayor of the German city of Berlin, Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and Manuela Schwesig, member of the SPD and governor of the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, pose with flowers 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

Christian Union parties candidate for chancellor Armin Laschet arrives at the party's leaders meetings 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. (Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)
Caption
Christian Union parties candidate for chancellor Armin Laschet arrives at the party's leaders meetings 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. (Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)

Credit: Michael Kappeler

Credit: Michael Kappeler

Co-leader of Germany's Greens and the party's candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock and the Greens' party co-leader Robert Habeck arrive to address a news conference 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.
( John MacDougall/Pool via AP)
Caption
Co-leader of Germany's Greens and the party's candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock and the Greens' party co-leader Robert Habeck arrive to address a news conference 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. ( John MacDougall/Pool via AP)

Credit: John MacDougall

Credit: John MacDougall

Germany's Free Democrats chairman Christian Lindner attends a news conference at the headquarters 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.
(Sebastian Kahnert/dpa via AP)
Caption
Germany's Free Democrats chairman Christian Lindner attends a news conference at the headquarters 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. (Sebastian Kahnert/dpa via AP)

Credit: Sebastian Kahnert

Credit: Sebastian Kahnert

Germany's Free Democrats chairman Christian Lindner attends a meeting of his party at the headquarters 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.
(Sebastian Kahnert/dpa via AP)
Caption
Germany's Free Democrats chairman Christian Lindner attends a meeting of his party at the headquarters 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. (Sebastian Kahnert/dpa via AP)

Credit: Sebastian Kahnert

Credit: Sebastian Kahnert

Co-chairwoman of the Greens and candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock, left, and co-party leader of the Greens Robert Habeck arrive for a press conference 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. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Caption
Co-chairwoman of the Greens and candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock, left, and co-party leader of the Greens Robert Habeck arrive for a press conference 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. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Credit: Matthias Schrader

Credit: Matthias Schrader

Co-party leader of the Greens Robert Habeck arrives for 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. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Caption
Co-party leader of the Greens Robert Habeck arrives for 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. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Credit: Matthias Schrader

Credit: Matthias Schrader

Candidate for chancellor of the Christian Union parties block Armin Laschet brief the media after a leaders meeting of his Christian Democratic Union party CDU at the headquarters in Berlin, 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. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Caption
Candidate for chancellor of the Christian Union parties block Armin Laschet brief the media after a leaders meeting of his Christian Democratic Union party CDU at the headquarters in Berlin, 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. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Credit: Martin Meissner

Credit: Martin Meissner

Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), holds a bunch of flowers after 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/Lisa Leunter)
Caption
Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), holds a bunch of flowers after 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/Lisa Leunter)

Credit: Lisa Leutner

Credit: Lisa Leutner