Small parties the big winners in German election
On a platform of lower taxes and smaller government, the Free Democrats clinched their best-ever score of 14.6 percent, which gave Merkel's preferred coalition the leg-up needed to secure a parliamentary majority.
Berlin -- Germany's centre-left Social Democrats licked their wounds on Monday after their worst election score in 60 years, while small parties were the vote's real winners.
In what their luckless candidate for chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called a "bitter defeat", the Social Democrats (SPD) plunged to 23 percent, condemning them to a painful period in opposition after 11 years in government.
But the glee of the other "people's party" in Germany, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), was muted as the CDU and its main ally crashed to their lowest score since 1949 in Sunday's election, polling 33.8 percent in what one paper called a "black eye" for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
SPD chief Franz Muentefering hinted he could step down at the party conference in November, after Ingo Egloff, the head of the regional SPD in the northern city-state of Hamburg, threw in the towel earlier Monday.
The Financial Times Deutschland blamed the two main parties' losses on their four-year awkward "grand coalition", which boosted the profile of smaller parties: the Greens, the far-left Linke party and the pro-business Free Democrats.
"The strong performance of the smaller parties is an unequivocal signal that an alliance between the two major parties at federal level must remain the exception," the paper said in an editorial.
On a platform of lower taxes and smaller government, the Free Democrats (FDP) clinched their best-ever score of 14.6 percent, which gave Merkel's preferred coalition the leg-up needed to secure a parliamentary majority.
Meanwhile the Linke, a hotchpotch of former communists and disaffected rebels from the left wing of the SPD, and the ecologist Greens also hit new record highs, of 11.9 and 10.7 percent respectively.
The "people's parties," which have traditionally led coalitions in the post-war period, were thus squeezed from both sides of the political spectrum.
Mass circulation daily Bild said the SPD lost 1.2 million votes to the Linke, while the CDU saw many core voters, especially workers in Germany's crucial small and medium-sized firms, defect to the FDP.
Analysts said the historically-low turnout of 70.8 percent also boosted the smaller parties as traditional SPD and CDU voters stayed away in droves.
The Linke's seizure of SPD votes revived a debate over whether the two parties should become coalition partners. They already govern jointly in some states but the SPD leadership has ruled out a national coalition.
The deputy head of the Linke party, Klaus Ernst, called on the SPD to move to the left and predicted that the two "red" parties would eventually join forces at national level.
"Maybe not immediately. We will need one or two years. But then we can do something," he told Bayerischer Rundfunk radio.
"Now social democracy must become socially democratic again. That is the main precondition. In addition, we also need, in my opinion, a change of leadership."
Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin, agreed.
"There must be political changes, that means the banning of a (federal) coalition with the Linke will have to end and there will have to be personnel changes," he told rolling news channel NTV.
Steinmeier, who has said he will continue in politics as leader of the SPD's parliamentary group, has been steadfast in ruling out an alliance with the Linke.
But Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a senior SPD member, appeared to hint at a possible flirtation with the Linke.
The SPD must draw lessons from the voting debacle and position itself differently, he said. "We must throw out the taboos," he told German radio.