German Chancellor Angela Merkel embarked Sunday on talks with the center-left Social Democrats on forming a new government, with leaders stressing the need for speed as they attempt to break an impasse more than three months after the country’s election. Leaders aim to decide by Friday whether there’s enough common ground to move on to formal coalition negotiations. Whatever the result, it will be a while yet before a new administration is in place to end what is already post-World War II Germany’s longest effort to put together a new government. Germany’s Sept. 24 election produced a parliamentary majority for only two plausible coalitions: the outgoing alliance of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union and its Bavaria-only sister, the Christian Social Union, with the Social Democrats; or an untried combination of the conservatives, the pro-business Free Democrats and the left-leaning Greens.
The Social Democrats vowed after slumping to their worst post-war election result to go into opposition, so Merkel opened talks on the alternative coalition — which collapsed in November. The Social Democrats then reluctantly reconsidered their refusal to mull extending the “grand coalition” of Germany’s biggest parties. Shortly before Christmas, Germany beat its previous record of 86 days — set in 2013 — for the time from an election to the swearing-in of a new government.
If the parties decide this week that they’re prepared to open formal coalition negotiations, that will require approval Jan. 21 by a congress of the Social Democrats. Party leader Martin Schulz, Merkel’s defeated challenger in September, may face a tough job convincing members who so far are deeply skeptical of being junior partners in another “grand coalition.” Those negotiations would take weeks. Further, Social Democrat leaders have promised to hold a ballot of the full party membership on any coalition deal — taking several more weeks.