The German chancellor's CDU won 41.5% of the vote, but now faces the task of forming a coalition.
Angela Merkel has been fêted for winning her party its best result in 20 years, and even pushing it close to an absolute majority – an unusual outcome in coalition-friendly Germany. Now she faces a dilemma: after the collapse of the Free Liberals, who failed to get into government for the first time in their history, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is without its traditional coalition partner. So what are her options?
Theoretically, the CDU could lead a minority government. However, she would be facing three parties in opposition that wouldn't forgive her the slightest slip-up – hardly a satisfying solution while the eurozone crisis continues. Merkel has categorically ruled out minority rule: "We want a stable government."
Verdict: Highly unlikely
Amid the Merkel mania on September 22, it was easily missed that the final election results at around half-past midnight gave a coalition between the three parties on the political left – the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and Die Linke – a majority of 42.7% (against the CDU's 41.5%).
However, although Die Linke has called for such a coalition, both the SPD and the Greens have ruled it out for now. Working with Die Linke, some of whose politicians started out in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)'s ruling communist party, would make a left coalition vulnerable to attacks from the right and is still considered taboo in Germany. At any rate, the majority would be too small to guarantee a stable government.
Verdict: Highly unlikely
About six months ago, this was a possibility for the future of German politics. The Greens had selected a vice-candidate, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, who seemed to symbolise a more conservative, centrist direction for the party.
There is, arguably, some overlap between the two parties' emphasis on Nachhaltigkeit ("sustainability") and responsible use of resources (environmental in the case of the Greens, fiscal in the case of the CDU).
The other vice-candidate, Jürgen Trittin, seemed to express openness towards such an option.
But a glance at the two party programmes highlights the possibility of several bust-ups down the road. On gay marriage, dual citizenship, drugs policy and tax reliefs, the parties are miles apart.
And the Greens will remember the curse of the Merkel hug: each of the parties the chancellor has entered into a coalition with has ended up with massive losses when she released them from her grip.
Verdict: Unlikely, but not out of the question
Grand coalition (CDU-SPD)
The parties agree in many areas and in Merkel's first term in government a coalition with the Social Democrats, was considered a success. The SPD were punished for cosying up too closely with the Conservatives and ended up with the worst result in their history, in 2009; they will think carefully before jumping in – and may make life more difficult for her.
Verdict: Likely – © Guardian News & Media 2013