Berlin: German coalition talks go into crunch time this week as Chancellor Angela Merkel`s conservatives haggle with their defeated centre-left rivals over a deal to form a joint government by year`s end.
Two months after Merkel triumphed at the ballot box, falling just short of an outright majority, the unlikely political bedfellows aim to hammer out a deal by Wednesday on a left-right `grand coalition` to rule Europe`s biggest economy.
"We face long days and nights ahead, and it`ll be tough," said the general secretary of Merkel`s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Hermann Groehe, as delegates braced for red-eye meetings into the early hours.
With negotiations going down to the wire, Merkel has grudgingly made concessions to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), including on their core demand for a national minimum wage, but has stuck to her guns in opposing higher taxes for the rich.
Tricky details remain to be sorted out, including how to pay for and reform Germany`s green energy shift, how to ease a ban on dual nationality for immigrants, and whether foreign drivers will have to pay tolls on German motorways.
If both sides do strike a deal on policy and cabinet posts, another wild card remains.
The SPD, in a high-stakes gamble, has promised to let its 470,000 rank-and-file members vote on the loveless political marriage in a mid-December postal ballot, the outcome of which is anything but certain.
Many local SPD branches and the party`s youth wing bitterly reject the idea of their blue-collar party again governing in the shadow of Merkel as it last did from 2005-09, only to suffer two devastating election defeats in a row.
SPD leaders have therefore battled on two fronts: seeking to extract headline concessions from Merkel`s conservatives, then selling these as political trophies to their ambivalent grassroots members.
Party chief Sigmar Gabriel, who would be Merkel`s vice chancellor, has threatened to quit if the base rebels and rejects a final deal, while imploring sceptical members of the 150-year-old party to sign off on a compromise agreement.
"If we have a draft and it contains good policies and the SPD then says `no` to it, then it is putting itself above the people it is meant to represent," Gabriel told party members at the weekend.
`Maybe we`ll have to go into extra time.
The SPD has used the threat of a membership `no` vote as leverage to wrest concessions from the conservatives but CDU Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has warned they must not "overdo it with their demands".