Imagine they gave a majority and no-one wanted to form a government. In the short run, this looks like the rather bizarre outcome of the German general election where the distribution of seats was as follows
In just about any other country, commentators would have noted that the sitting government had lost its majority while the opposition had won a majority which satisfied the conditions for the election of a new chancellor in the first and second rounds (The number to look for is 316).
The only problem is that Die Linke is not considered koalitionsfähig on the federal level which again means that an SPD-Grüne coalition would have to work with the CDU/CSU group to pass legislation. Here, I suspect that the real issue may lie with the relation between the SPD and Linke, rather than between B90/Grüne and Linke but in the real world this doesn’t really change anything.
This leaves us with three possible coalitions: An “everybody but Die Linke” coalition comprising CDU/CSU, SPD and B90/Grüne, a grand coalition between CDU/CSU and the not so grand SPD and a classical minimal winning coalition between CDU/CSU and B90/Grüne. Again, we can probably count out the massive three-party coalition and we are left with one of the wonderful paradoxes of representative government: That the side which may look like the loser, does in fact hold the upper hand.
First of all: The Union (CDU/CSU) has time on its hands. Even if the term of the present government ends with the election of a new Bundestag, the Chancellor continues as caretaker until a new chancellor has been elected or new elections are called. Given the distribution of seats in the Bundestag, the opposition cannot install a new chancellor even under the rules governing a third round of voting where only a relative majority is needed, unless the SPD acknowledges the support of Die Linke.
The SPD and B90/Grüne are – to use a German phrase – im Zugzwang: One of the parties eventually have to decide if it will stall the formation of a new government, triggering a new general election or enter a coalition with the Union. The challenge for both parties is that no-one has ever entered a coalition with the Union under Angela Merkel and won at the next elections.
The SPD suffered a savage beating in 2009 while FDP (against my predictions) were eradicated in 2013. But then again, there may have been more to the defeats than just Merkel, even if she is a notoriously shrewd negotiator – like so many Social Democratic parties the SPD has been balancing between a market-oriented and a union-oriented line since the early 2000s and failed to get its message right while the FDP is paying the price for a severe case of post-2009 hubris. Getting the policies and the implementation of policies right will be essential for the party which enters a coalition. These are the first two decisions the parties face before entering negotiations.
The process may be made more easy by the fact that nobody expected the SPD and B90/Grüne to win a parliamentary majority at the election. Jumping ship is less of a betrayal of pre-election promises, but on the other hand this makes the policy aspect even more important for the respective party leaderships. Still: We are left with a rather unusual situation where the office option is not particularly attractive to the potential coalition partners and this makes the government formation process a fascinating variation on game of chicken.
PS: You may also want to read this post by Kai Arzheimer.