German parties meet as coalition haggling begins

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The SPD and its candidate Olaf Scholz narrowly won last week's vote on 25.7 percent (AFP/Odd ANDERSEN)
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German political parties will hold exploratory talks from Sunday as they jostle to form the next government after a close election, with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) battling Angela Merkel's conservatives for the chancellery.

The SPD and its candidate Olaf Scholz narrowly won last week's vote on 25.7 percent, with Merkel's CDU-CSU alliance plunging to an all-time low of 24.1 percent as she prepares to leave the stage after 16 years in power.

The result leaves the SPD in pole position to form a government, but conservative leader Armin Laschet has also vowed to begin coalition talks in a last-ditch effort to keep the ailing CDU-CSU in power.

In the complex calculations for a coalition, the makeup of the next German government essentially hinges on which of the two parties can persuade the Greens and the liberal FDP to sign up for a partnership.

First up in what Der Spiegel magazine has described as the "poker game for power" is the SPD, which will huddle with the FDP on Sunday afternoon and the Greens in the evening.

Their rivals, the CDU-CSU, will meet with the FDP on Sunday evening and the Greens on Tuesday.

- 'Historic defeat' -

In a poll for the ZDF broadcaster on Friday, 59 percent of respondents said they were in favour of an SPD-Greens-FDP coalition, also known as the "traffic-light" combination after the parties' colours.

Only 24 percent said they would prefer the combination led by the CDU, a coalition known as "Jamaica" after the colours of that country's flag.

Some 76 percent said they thought Scholz should be the next German chancellor, with just 13 percent backing Laschet.

In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine Friday, Scholz said it was "clear from every poll that people don't want the (CDU-CSU) to be part of the next government".

"The election result is clear. The CDU and CSU have suffered a historic defeat and have been voted out," he said.

But the conservatives are not giving up, with Markus Blume, general secretary of the CSU, insisting on Friday that "Jamaica has a chance".

The CSU, the smaller Bavarian partner in the conservative alliance, had provoked consternation earlier in the week by conceding that Scholz had won the election and should be first in the queue to form a government.

- Secret selfie -

The stance broke ranks with Laschet, who at that point had not publicly congratulated Scholz and had claimed "no party" -- not even the SPD -- could claim a mandate to govern from the vote outcome.

Laschet has faced a barrage of criticism over his election performance and his refusal to admit defeat, including calls to resign from within his own party -- but has so far given no indication that he plans to do so.

With the SPD and the conservatives scrambling for the affections of the Greens and the FDP, the smaller parties find themselves in an outsize position of power as potential kingmakers.

"For now, Greens and FDP are in the driver's seat," said Holger Schmieding, an analyst for the Berenberg bank.

The two parties have aready held two sounding-out sessions, with their leaders posting a much-shared selfie on social media in a show of unity after a secret gathering on Tuesday.

But it remains to be seen "whether they can really choose between traffic light and Jamaica, and the extent to which they can shape the agenda", Schmieding said.

The two smaller parties are not natural bedfellows, diverging on issues like tax hikes and public investment in climate protection.

After Germany's last election in 2017, the FDP dramatically walked out of negotiations with the CDU-CSU and the Greens, with leader Christian Lindner declaring it was "better not to govern at all than to govern badly".

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