I don’t follow Geman politics closely, but I’m puzzled by what seems to be the widely-shared belief (as expressed, e.g., in the latest Economist and in Der Spiegel) that because the CDU/CSU drew the largest number of votes, Angela Merkel as its standard-bearer is somehow rightfully the new Chancellor.
The other way to look at the result is that the center-right and right parties took barely 45% of the vote, actually losing vote-share from the previous election, while the center-left and left took 55%. Both the SPD and the Greens lost votes to the new Left Party, a pariah in coalition terms due to its Communist antecedents; that’s how Merkel managed to edge out Schroeder. But it’s hard to see by what standard the election could be called a mandate for a center-right government.
Update Andy Sabl, who has the unfair advantage of actually understanding German politics, disagrees:
(1) In parliamentary regimes with proportional representation, first-mover advantages in forming governments can be substantial. As a result, almost all such regimes have adopted a very strong convention whereby the head of state (President or monarch) gives the party with a plurality, however small, the first option to try to form a coalition.
So the issue isn’t “mandate for a center-right government” so much as “prerogative of the center-right leader to form a government if she can.” But most of the intelligent commentary I’ve seen thinks that Merkel will have an uphill battle to form anything but a grand coalition with the SPD, because of the numbers you quote.
(2) The Left Party ran on a platform that it wouldn’t form a coalition with any party after this election, leaving open the possibility of doing so in the future. As a result, it was able to run as a protest party and a fair amount of its vote may be attributed to that. In particular, the far-Right did worse than usual. So glomming the Left Party onto a notional center-left coalition isn’t necessarily fair. A lot of Left voters wouldn’t support a status-quo-ish coalition with the SPD, and a lot of SPD voters wouldn’t have voted for them had they expressed any potential willingness to join with the Lefts.
(3) The SPD is certainly “left of center,” but Schroeder departed from much of his base by proposing labor reforms (as a result of which some of that base split off to form the Left Party with the ex-Communists). On the other hand, many Christian Democrats are strongly opposed to free-market reforms; there’s a strong social-solidarity tradition within that party. (Merkel is almost certainly to the right of the average CDU voter.) So the mandate is, and necessarily had to be, fuzzy regardless of left-right labels.
(4) Schroeder has, completely unreasonably, said he won’t join a grand coalition with the CDU unless he gets to be the chancellor–claiming a mandate for that result. Any claims that Merkel has a strong, specific mandate to lead a center-right government can be seen as partly a polemical response to that. (As can the recent overwhelming confirmation of her party leadership by a party conference whose members in fact think Merkel is uncharismatic and lost the election due to her personal qualities.)
(5) Finally, there’s the matter of the Greens. The Green movement has a lot of postmaterialist fanatics in it–the kind of people who resemble the McGovern operative who said that all union members should be lined up and mown down. This tendency has been submerged in the U.S. due to the electoral system–Gary Hart types have been co-opted into being mere Democrats with all the compromises that go with that–but a system like Germany’s encourages such fringe sociological and ideological tendencies to form their own parties and keep them.
Many Green voters are supporters of the welfare state but are not particularly pro-labor and are supportive of certain structural reforms. As a result, a “Jamaica” coalition (from the colors of the CDU, Free Democrats, and Greens, i.e. black, yellow, and green) has been widely bruited about. I hope it comes to pass, in fact, since a combination of structural reform and a strong welfare state represents Germany’s brightest future. Here again, first-mover advantage seems key, which is why the small CDU plurality matters.