by Guo Xinyu, Tang Zhiqiang
BERLIN, Sept. 23 (Xinhua) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel's victory in Sunday's federal elections is set to make her the longest-serving female head of government in Europe, but she may have to form a "grand coalition" with her rivals in a third term.
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU), won 41.5 percent of the vote, falling short of an absolute majority to govern without a partner, showed provisional official results released in the early hours of Monday.
The CDU/CSU bloc is most likely to form a "grand coalition" with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), but coalition talks might be difficult and time-consuming.
Sunday's victory further consolidated Merkel's position as Europe's strong political leader. A smiling Merkel dressed in blue told chanting supporters on Sunday night at her party headquarters in Berlin that her party had won a "super" victory.
"This is a super result," said Merkel. "Tonight we can celebrate. ... Together we will do everything in the next four years to again make them successful years for Germany."
Merkel, 59, remains the most popular politician in Germany.
Her leadership features pragmatism with no grand visions or ideologies, said Oskar Niedermayer, a politics professor at Berlin Free University.
Merkel, he added, sees politics as a problem-solving process and often waits to see the attitudes of the public before responding to many issues.
"It seems that this governing style is accepted by the German public. Merkel seems to be successful in setting up a motherly image in the nation, which makes her unassailable for rivals," he said.
Niedermayer said the main achievement of the Merkel administration lies in the fact that it made Germany sail through the eurozone debt crisis largely unscathed with no job cuts and tax hikes.
Merkel's domestic popularity owes much to sticking to principles in dealing with the eurozone debt crisis, including pressing indebted eurozone members to carry out austerity measures and reforms. Strong German economic performances during the crisis also helped boost the Merkel administration.
"We are still waiting for the final result. It's too early to say how we should proceed," said the chancellor on Sunday night.
Lagging behind Merkel's bloc, the SPD, the largest opposition party, took 25.7 percent; the Green party, the SPD's favored ally, captured 8.4 percent; and the Left Party got 8.6 percent.
"We had expected more, the results are a big victory for the CDU/CSU," SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel admitted.
The Free Democrats, a junior coalition partner of Merkel's bloc, failed to retain seats in parliament with a disappointing result of 4.8 percent.
The Alternative for Germany, an election wild card which was founded seven months ago and calls for "orderly dissolution of the euro," also fell short of the 5-percent threshold required to win seats in parliament.
Analysts said Merkel is most likely to form a coalition government with the SPD, but horse-trading may take weeks. Merkel chaired such a grand coalition during her first term of 2005-2009.
A grand coalition with the SPD would see some policy shifts, particularly in social issues, said Thomas Fischer of the Bertelsmann Foundation.
He noted that there are a number of issues on the domestic agenda in the next administration, including child care and health care reform, subsidy cuts and energy policy.
A particularly conflict-prone topic would be the nationwide legal minimum wage. The SPD has stressed greater social justice and reiterated the plan to introduce a national minimum wage of 8.50 euros (11.35 U.S. dollars) per hour. The party also wants to raise income tax on the rich.
However, Merkel said such tax hike plans would risk spoiling the good situation in the country. The German economy expanded 0.7 percent in the second quarter of 2013 compared with the previous quarter, the strongest quarter-on-quarter growth since the first three months of 2012. The strong economic growth in Germany boosted confidence that the euro zone would be lift out of the ongoing recession soon.
The CDU rules out tax increases and supports only minimum wage deals struck by employers and trade unions in different industry sectors and regions.
On handling the eurozone debt crisis, the SPD called for more solidarity measures for indebted eurozone members, including Greece. However, Merkel insisted on structural reforms and spending cuts by indebted countries. She said it was her responsibility as chancellor to keep the reform pressure on Greece.