Angela Merkel began final negotiations on forming a new coalition government in Germany on Friday, four months after her party suffered heavy losses in elections.
Mrs Merkel pledged to complete the talks swiftly following months of damaging uncertainty as she met with Martin Schulz, the leader of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
“I think it’s feasible to do it in a relatively manageable time,” Mrs Merkel said as she met with party leaders in Berlin on Friday. “People expect us to get on with forming a government.”
A deal with the SPD is Mrs Merkel’s last hope of a parliamentary majority. If the talks fail she will face a choice between new elections and forming a minority government.
The parties have set themselves a deadline of next Sunday to agree a deal. The short time frame leaves negotiators just over a week to settle serious differences over issues including migration, healthcare and social security.
Party sources say the rush is in order to complete talks before the start of the German carnival season, which traditionally interrupts politics as MPs travel to their constituencies to take part in parades.
German election composite
But it may also be an attempt to circumvent a Momentum-style campaign by SPD rebels to block a new coalition by signing up thousands of new members.
A party congress narrowly voted in favour of a new coalition last weekend but a final deal still has to be put to a vote of the full membership. Rebels led by the SPD youth wing, the Jusos, believe they can sign up enough coalition opponents to block a deal.
Party officials say they will impose a cut-off date for new members to be able to vote on the deal, and the quicker the party leaders agree a deal the less time the rebels will have to sign up new members.
“We’ve been waiting long enough for a government in Germany,” said Andrea Nahles, a senior figure in the SPD increasing seen as a rival to Mr Schulz. “I’m optimistic we can get a lot out of negotiations.”
The talks are expected to be tough. Mr Schulz came in for heavy criticism for not winning enough concessions from Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in initial discussions, and many in his party are demanding more if they are to approve a final deal.
The talks put Mrs Merkel in the unfamiliar position of opposing more migrants entering Germany, with the SPD demanding family reunification rights for asylum-seekers.
The SPD is also pushing for healthcare reforms that would effectively end private health insurance, and a ban on companies using short-term employment contracts to circumvent workers’ rights.
But the party’s demands are vociferously opposed by Mrs Merkel’s more conservative Bavarian sister-party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), whose leader Horst Seehofer was also at the talks.
Meanwhile the embattled Mr Schulz was reputed to have refused demands from within his own party that he honour a pledge not to serve as a minister under Mrs Merkel, and remain outside the cabinet.
He is widely expected to claim the foreign ministry as well as the vice-chancellorship in a coalition government.
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