It really is as near a dead heat as you could get in Germany - only three seats separate the main parties. Given the expectation of a crushing CDU/CSU victory, the SPD feels buoyant, but it does not have enough seats to govern in anything like the way it would like to.
So, what next? The Frankfurter Allgemeine gives us an overview:
Grand coalition: the SPD remains in power, but in coalition with its main rival the CDU/CSU. Purely numerically, this is the simplest option. Not surprisingly, however, there are huge problems in the way of such a coalition. The parties are sharply divided on all manner of issues from labour market reform to changes in health provision. Schroeder has also ruled out such a coalition unless he remains chancellor. In theory, therefore, a grand coalition could take place with new party leaders, but that is surely a very long shot.
Jamaica coalition (Germans love to colour-code their politics): The CDU/CSU has said its current preferred option is a government with the liberal FDP and the Greens. All three parties are ready to negotiate, but the gulf between their policies could well prove insurmountable. Nuclear policy and the accession of Turkey to the EU are just two of the many stumbling blocks. And Green party members could well find supporting a right-wing government a bit too much to stomach.
Traffic-light coalition: The SPD joins forces with the FDP and the Greens, its current coalition partner. The problem here is that before the election the FDP leadership said unequivocally that it would not join such a traffic-light coalition. Rank-and-file members, however, are less likely to oppose such a coalition in principle. But there remain huge policy differences, especially in economic and labour market policy. Nevertheless, this coalition formation could be the one to watch if there is no early agreement between the major parties.
Minority government: Things begin to get really sticky here. Either Merkel or Schroeder could try to rule without a majority coalition. According to the German constitution, the President proposes a candidate for chancellor to the Bundestag. If Schroeder gets enough votes from the left-wing Linkspartei, he could make it. But such a government, a continuation of the current red-green coalition, would need the tacit support of the Linkspartei to continue. A long life would be far, far from guaranteed, and Germany could be facing new elections far sooner than envisaged.
What lessons to draw from this? It doesn't increase my love for proportional representation. Germany looks certain to get a government that pretty much nobody wants and nobody voted for. Few, whether from the right or the left, believe that any conceivable government will be able to implement the policies that Germany needs, so paralysed will the country's politics now be.
Perhaps a fresh election within the year is the least worst option.