Her party was widely expected to unseat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SDP) and form a right-leaning coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
But yesterday, voters delivered a shock to the CDU -- not 40 percent support as some opinion polls had predicted, but barely 35 percent (35.2 percent, 225 seats). The result was just a percentage point ahead of Schroeder's SDP (34.3 percent, 222 seats).
As the first exit poll results were announced yesterday evening, Merkel tried to put on a confident face. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have determined that the [coalition between the Social Democratic Party and the Greens -- the 'red-green' coalition] has been voted out in Germany," she said. "And that's good news!"
But by then it was clear: Schroeder had pulled off one of the most stunning comebacks in German political history -- storming back from some 20 percentage points behind in the opinion polls to pull to nearly even on election day.
The chancellor was clearly elated with the result. Appearing on national television he said Merkel -- not the SPD -- was the real loser. "Compared with what was written and broadcast in this country [about how well the CDU would do in the elections], there's a clear loser [in this campaign] and that is Mrs. Merkel," he said. "She should acknowledge that. It's the truth."
Not even the relative success of the FDP -- the CDU's would-be coalition partners -- was enough to lift Merkel's gloom. Exit polls showed the FDP winning some 10 percent of the vote, its best-ever showing (9.8 percent, 61 seats) -- but not enough to help the CDU win a majority in the legislature.
What comes next is anyone's guess. Germany has a long history of power sharing between parties, but relatively little experience in three-party coalitions or power sharing across the political divide.
Merkel, assuming her party retains its lead once all the votes are counted, will earn the right to make the first attempt at forming a government.
Yesterday, she said she was open to talking with all major parties except the new Left Party (8.7 percent, 54 seats), which combines former communists in what was East Germany with some renegade Social Democrats. This would include negotiations with the SPD on a possible grand coalition, even though earlier she said such a coalition could lead to stagnation.
"If we are the strongest party -- and it looks like we will be -- then we will of course talk to all the leading parties -- that's the rule of a democracy. And then we'll see how we can build a stable government," Merkel said.
But it's not clear yet whether Schroeder will go along. Yesterday, he ruled out his participation in a grand coalition involving Merkel as chancellor and said he was the only one who could form a government. "[The voters] have given us a result that is clear," he said. "Clear is the fact that no one has the ability to form a stable government except me."
In spite of the difficulties, a grand coalition appears to be the most likely outcome. But party leaders will be considering several other possibilities in the coming days.
FDP head Guido Westerwelle has already forcefully rejected any talk that his party could join the SDP and the Greens to form what is known as a "traffic light" coalition -- referring to the colors of the parties: red, yellow, and green.
"There will be no 'traffic light' [coalition] in Germany with the FDP. That's the opinion of the chairman of the FDP Westerwelle, That's the opinion of the party's presidium that has been confirmed, and that's the opinion of the federal party congress of the FDP that is perfectly clear," Westerwelle said. "Dream on -- not with us!"
Another possibility is an all-left coalition, linking the SPD, the Greens, and the Left Party. But that's also highly unlikely, since Schroeder says he won't work with the Left Party.
A last improbable but possible coalition envisions a right-leaning CDU/FDP coalition, with the support of the Greens (8.1 percent, 55 seats). That combination would achieve a parliamentary majority, but would require the two smaller rivals to put aside their differences. Greens leader Joschka Fischer said yesterday he is willing to talk with Merkel, but he couldn't imagine how the talks would end.
Attention is also now focusing on the eastern city of Dresden, which holds a special election 2 October in which two or three parliamentary mandates will be determined. After yesterday's vote, those seats could prove valuable indeed.
The German share index, the DAX, dropped 1.8 percent in the wake of the election results, with market analysts predicting further declines. The euro also dropped to a one-month low at $1.2134.