Both conservative leader Angela Merkel and the chairman of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party said Monday they had initiated contacts with potential coalition partners as they wrestled for control of the government after Germany's inconclusive parliamentary election.
Merkel urged her rival's Social Democrats to "accept that they are not the strongest group" in parliament and to enter talks on a broad right-left alliance under her leadership.
But within minutes, the chairman of the Social Democrats, Franz Muentefering, said his party would insist on Schroeder remaining chancellor and said he had invited other party leaders to hold talks on a new coalition.
"I have initiated contact with the offices" of the other parties, Merkel said. She added that she, like Schroeder, would refuse to hold talks with the Left Party — an alliance of ex-communists and former Social Democrats angered by the chancellor's efforts to trim the welfare state.
Muentefering said any linkup between his party and Merkel's would be without Merkel as chancellor. "The message was clear: this country does not want Mrs. Merkel as chancellor," he said.
Sunday's election denied a majority both to Schroeder's outgoing government of Social Democrats and Greens and to Merkel's preferred combination of her Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats.
Germany's benchmark stock market index and the euro dropped amid gloom over the muddled outcome, with business groups and economists saying the country needs decisive action to fix its underperforming economy.
Official results showed Merkel's party and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, winning 225 seats, three more than the Social Democrats. The Free Democrats got 61, the Greens 51 and the new Left Party 54.
Those results were based on counting from 298 of 299 districts; voting in the final district, in the eastern city of Dresden, has been delayed until Oct. 2 because of a candidate's death.