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Jamaica or bust - Merkel starts crunch coalition talks

The talks between Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens are styled as 'exploratory'.

FILE: German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses for a photograph after the recording of her annual New Year's speech at the Chancellery in Berlin on 30 December 2016. Picture: AFP.

BERLIN - German Chancellor Angela Merkel pronounced herself optimistic as she opened the first full round of talks on piecing together the three-way “Jamaica” coalition she needs if she is to avoid an abrupt end to her 12 years in power.

The talks between Merkel’s conservative bloc, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens are styled as “exploratory”, but negotiators aim to get down to details of tax and budget policy in their first full meeting together.

The tricky three-way pact, dubbed a “Jamaica” coalition because of the three parties’ colours - black, yellow and green - match those of the Jamaican flag, is untried at national level.

Merkel, weakened by a surging far-right in last month’s national election, needs to make the awkward alliance fly as her previous “grand coalition” partners - the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) - say they want to rebuild in opposition after their worst election result in more than half a century.

“There will be many differences,” she said on her arrival at the Berlin talks, adding: “There is readiness on my side to think about this creatively.”

The outcome of the talks is keenly awaited both at home and across Europe, with many fretting that on crucial issues like euro zone governance reform the bloc is rudderless as its longest-serving leader forges a new alliance.

The chancellor told reporters after a two-day EU summit in Brussels that big decisions on the future of the euro zone would have to wait for the formation of the new government in Berlin.

Merkel has been able to steer Europe through its euro zone and refugee crises in part due to her dominance at home. Now that dominance is waning - her conservatives last month had their weakest election showing since 1949.

An Infratest Dimap poll for ARD showed 83 percent of Germans wanted the parties to find a compromise deal.

“CENTRIFUGAL FORCES”

“The chancellor knows that she must lead ‘Jamaica’ to success. Otherwise, the centrifugal forces in the CDU will become uncontrollable,” business daily Handelsblatt wrote in an editorial headlined: “Jamaica as last chance for Merkel.”

Arriving at talks alongside Horst Seehofer, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, Merkel was unable to mask the deep fractures within her own conservative camp.

“We want a stable government for our country,” Seehofer said, repeating his call for a strict upper limit on refugee numbers that Merkel has consistently opposed.

Some conservatives are starting to look towards a post-Merkel era. Daniel Guenther, conservative premier of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, said Germans had a “huge interest” in Merkel leading Germany for another four years.

“But they also want to see how things will proceed afterwards,” he told Focus magazine.

Merkel, 63, has suffered two further setbacks since the national election: the CDU was defeated in a regional election in Lower Saxony on Sunday, and the party’s premier in the eastern state of Saxony resigned on Wednesday, saying younger, fresher leadership was needed to revitalise the conservatives.

Should the three-party groups fail to form a coalition, some in their ranks fear this could lead to public disenchantment and fuel further support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered parliament for the first time last month.

If she cannot clinch a three-way coalition pact, Merkel could try to form a minority government, or else call fresh elections - an unprecedented scenario.

Alternatively, she could try to team up with the SPD. The Social Democrats reject that scenario, though senior party official Thomas Oppermann has indicated they could reconsider on one condition: Merkel steps aside.

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