BERLIN (AP) — The two parties that emerged as the likely kingmakers from Germany's election last month said Wednesday they will hold talks on a possible new government under the leadership of the center-left Social Democrats.
If ultimately successful, which is far from certain, the negotiations would send outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Union bloc into opposition after 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy.
While that now appears the most likely outcome, such exploratory talks are only the first of several steps toward creating a new coalition government in Germany. Both prospective junior partners — the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats — said a coalition with the Union isn’t off the table.
Germany’s Sept. 26 election left two parties as likely kingmakers: the Greens, who finished third, and the Free Democrats, who finished fourth. Those two parties could team up with either the Social Democrats, who narrowly won the election with outgoing Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz as their candidate for the top job, or the Union for a parliamentary majority.
The Greens traditionally lean to the left, while the Free Democrats have mostly allied with the Union. All four parties have held bilateral meetings with each other in recent days.
Until a new government is in place, Merkel will remain in office on a caretaker basis.
On Wednesday, the Greens said they had proposed to the Free Democrats holding three-way exploratory talks with the Social Democrats. That combination appears to offer the “biggest overlaps in terms of content,” though there are “significant open questions and differences,” Green co-leader Robert Habeck said.
A little later, the Free Democrats said they had accepted, though their leader, Christian Lindner, sounded more cautious. He said his party “will only enter a government of the center that strengthens the value of freedom and gives a real stimulus for the renewal of our country.”
Lindner, who four years ago pulled the plug after weeks of negotiations on a possible Merkel-led coalition with the Free Democrats and Greens, said his party's yardstick will be with whom it can implement most of its policies.
But despite his party's relative closeness to the Union, he noted that “the willingness to govern and unity of the Union parties are being debated in public.”
Questions have been raised over whether the center-right Union bloc is in any state to lead a new government after its chancellor candidate, North Rhine-Westphalia state governor Armin Laschet, led it to its worst-ever result in the election.
Lindner said he set up a three-way meeting with Scholz on Thursday.
German voters “have given us a mandate to produce a government together, and current polls also show again and again that this is the will of this country's citizens,” Scholz said. “It is now up to us to implement that.”
Such a government, he added, should bring about the “necessary modernization” of Germany, “ensure that man-made climate change is stopped quickly and ensure more respect in our society.”
Many obstacles still have to be overcome before a new government is in place, which could take weeks or months. The Greens want to put fighting climate change at the center of the new government’s agenda. The Free Democrats oppose raising taxes and loosening Germany’s tight rules on running up public debt while the Social Democrats and Greens want to raise taxes for top earners and increase the minimum wage.
Like Lindner, the Green's Habeck stressed that the door wasn’t completely slammed on a coalition with the Union.
“We have seen the Union really made an effort,” he said, but his party’s differences with the center-right bloc are bigger.
Laschet said his party respects the decision by the Greens and Free Democrats. But he added that "we stand ready as interlocutors.”
If there is no agreement on a three-way alliance, a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the Union bloc and the Social Democrats — though this time with the roles reversed and Scholz as chancellor — is mathematically possible. But neither side wants it.
Follow AP’s coverage of Germany’s election at https://apnews.com/hub/germany-election
Geir Moulson, The Associated Press