What's next for Germany after coalition green light?
Germany cleared a major obstacle on the road to a new government Sunday after the centre-left Social Democrats gave a cautious thumbs-up to starting formal coalition talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
The make-or-break vote by some 600 SPD delegates -- won by a narrow 56-percent majority -- has averted the threat of fresh elections for now, but a renewed Merkel-led "grand coalition" is far from guaranteed.
Here's a look at what's next as Europe's top economy seeks to emerge from months of political paralysis.
- Formal talks -
Sunday's vote saw 362 out of 642 SPD delegates give their backing to a coalition blueprint hammered out with Merkel's conservative CDU and their Bavarian CSU sister party earlier this month.
The parties could now decide as early as Monday to launch in-depth negotiations to flesh out the broad policy outlines, which should ultimately lead to formal coalition agreement or "contract".
It is this final document that will essentially determine Germany's political programme for the next four years.
In 2013, when Merkel was seeking the current coalition with the SPD, the formal coalition talks took three weeks.
Merkel herself has said she wants to have a coalition agreement on the table by mid-February.
- SPD has final say -
Merkel's fate will then once again lie in the hands of the SPD because the party's leader Martin Schulz has promised to give some 440,000 rank and file members the final say on whether to sign on the dotted line.
The process of organising the postal ballot and collecting the results is slated to take around three weeks.
The CSU's chief Horst Seehofer has said he hopes a new government could be in place "in the first half of March" or "well before" Easter which this year falls on April 1.
- Bundestag vote -
If all goes well for her, Merkel, after 12 years in power, will be elected for a fourth term by a majority of lawmakers in the Bundestag.
She would then likely face the most complicated task -- holding the coalition together for four years despite their deep-seated differences.
Some political observers expect a now weakened Merkel to leave early and allow a successor to settle into the chancellorship ahead of 2021 elections.
Oskar Niedermayer of Berlin's Free University said that "in the interest of her party's electoral strength, she should not stay in office for the entire legislative term".
Another analyst, Lothar Probst of Bremen University, told the Handelsblatt business daily that the loveless coalition could break up early in a fight, which would mean "the deck is reshuffled and Merkel's chancellorship could reach an early end".
© 2018 AFP