Angela Merkel was holding on to her chances of becoming Germany's first woman Chancellor by her fingertips last night after her conservative Christian Democrats appeared to have won only a wafer- thin election lead that left the composition of the country's future government wide open.
Provisional results in the general election last night showed that Ms Merkel's party had won only 35.1 per cent of the vote, one of the worst performances on record for her conservatives " placing her party a mere 0.8 percent ahead of Mr Schrder's Social Democrats.
Although still narrowly the strongest party, the conservatives' poor showing deprived Ms Merkel of the parliamentary majority she needed to form the coalition government she had wanted with Germany's liberal Free Democratic party, which won over 10 per cent of the vote.
Clearly shocked by her party's performance, Ms Merkel insisted last night: 'We have emerged as the strongest party in the election. We have a clear mandate to form the next government. I shall be holding discussions with all parties on how to form a stable coalition.'
Chancellor Schrder, whose Social Democrats performed far better than predicted, admitted he had narrowly lost the election but claimed that he was still in a position to lead a government. 'There will still be a stable government under my leadership,' he insisted, 'I am really proud of my party,' he added.
Earlier, Mr Schrder had said he would quit politics if his party failed to emerge as the strongest political force in the election.
Liberal Free Democrat leaders last night flatly refused to contemplate joining a coalition with any other party than the conservatives: 'We fought this election on a campaign to get rid of the red-green government. We are not going to join a coalition which will only prolong the misery,' Guido Westerwelle, the FDP leader told German television.
The Social Democrats have also refused to enter into a coalition with the newly formed radical Left party which won 7.5 per cent of the vote " yet they were left without a big enough majority to continue governing with the environmentalist Greens which won 8.5 per cent of the vote. As a result the most likely option Ms Merkel faced last night was a 'grand coalition' government with the Social Democrats " an arrangement hitherto rejected by both parties during the election campaign because of its inherent inability to agree on policy.
The only other option open to Ms Merkel was the very slim possibility of a so-called 'Jamaica coalition' comprised of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Greens. Joschka Fischer, the Greens party leader, said last night he would hold talks with Ms Merkel, but admitted that the prospect of such an alliance was 'unrealistic.'
At conservative party headquarters in Berlin last night, party members said they were dismayed at seeing their hopes of a clear victory dashed at the polls: ' I couldn't believe the result,' said one CDU MP, ' The outcome will shatter the party. …