Although Chancellor Schröder's socialist-Green government has lost its electoral majority, and Angela Merkel's centrist CDU/CSU is now the largest single party (225 seats to the SDP's 222), the CDU/FDP alliance has not gained a majority mandate to govern.
This result is a terrible disaster for Merkel, the CDU and Germany. The prospects of a so-called "grand coalition" between the centrists and the socialists suggest that no effective reform package will ever be passed to deal with Germany's economic crisis.
What went wrong for the CDU? It seems that Merkel's moderately ambitious programme - to reduce bureaucracy, cut taxes and streamline employment practices - was successfully demonised by the left as a harbinger of socially-unjust capitalistic exploitation. The effect of the new, populist, hard left Linke Partei - made up of ex-communist misfits and disaffected socialists - was to make the SPD seem reasonably middle-of-the-road and solid, despite the 5 million unemployed. Merkel's decision to bring in the academic Paul Kirchof as her economics adviser was exploited by Schröder, who spoke constantly of "the professor from Heidelberg" and his evil plans to simplify the tax regime (he wanted a 25% flat rate) and treat the German people as "laboratory rabbits".
The contempt with which Merkel's ally, Edmund Stoiber (CSU leader), spoke of east Germany during the campaign also contributed to low levels of support for the centrists there, and added to the impression that there was something slightly provincial about Merkel's team. In the end, the headline CDU message, which should have been "Time for a Change", was blotted out, both by the confusion caused by Kirchof's demonised tax plans and by the agitation for change coming from the hard left. The scare-stories about the CDU's tax plans inhibited the support of the 20% "undecideds" from flowing to Merkel, the agitprop of the lefties drained away much of the protest vote.
The pollsters got it all wrong, too: all had indicated a slim overall majority for the CDU. Merkel must now attempt to forge a new coalition, possibly seeking an alliance between the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the dreaded Greens - a formation known as the "Jamaica Coalition" because the three parties' colours - green and black and yellow - are those of Jamaica's flag. From deadlock to dreadlocks, in other words.
At any rate, there's no winners at all for the moment, even if both Schröder and Merkel yesterday, bizarrely, claimed "victory".