Refugee issue complicates Merkel's bid to form government

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Monika Skolimowska, dpa via AP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Monika Skolimowska, dpa via AP)

Berlin - Two weeks after winning elections with a reduced majority, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a first step on Sunday toward forming a government by trying to unite her bitterly divided conservative camp.

Merkel met for closed-door talks with her Bavarian CSU allies led by Horst Seehofer, who blames her open-door refugee policy for the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Seehofer - who faces internal challengers and state elections next year - has revived his calls to cap refugee numbers at 200 000 a year, a demand Merkel has consistently rejected as unconstitutional.

Badly in need of win

In an opening salvo on Sunday, the CSU published a 10-point list of demands, including a refugee "upper limit", a broad return to the conservative roots of the centre-right alliance and a committment to "healthy patriotism.

"We must fight the AfD head-on - and fight to get their voters back," said the text published in mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag, which suggested that "conservatism is sexy again".

The talks were expected to last deep into the night, with CSU general secretary asking journalists whether they had "brought their sleeping bags".

Merkel's CDU too is nervous ahead of a Lower Saxony state poll next Sunday, where it is running neck-and-neck with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) - a party badly in need of a win after their bruising defeat in September 24 elections.

SPD leader Martin Schulz, gleefully watching the family squabbles in Merkel's conservative camp, charged that the "madhouse" CDU-CSU dispute showed that "in reality, they are enemy parties".

The emergence of the anti-immigration AfD, which scored 12.6%, has stunned Germany by breaking a long-standing taboo on hard-right parties sitting in the Bundestag.

Ministerial posts

Its success came at the expense of the mainstream parties, making it harder for Merkel to form a working majority.

Her best shot now - if she wants to avoid fresh elections that could further boost the AfD - is an alliance with two other parties that make for odd bedfellows, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the left-leaning Greens.

Such a power pact - dubbed a "Jamaica coalition" because the three party colours match those of the Caribbean nation's flag - would be a first at the national level in Germany.

In the talks to come, likely to take weeks, all players will fight for ministerial posts and issues from EU relations to climate policy.

All must give a little to reach a compromise - but not too much, to avoid charges from their own party bases that they are selling out in a grab for power.

The smaller parties will seek to avoid the fate of Merkel's previous junior coalition partners: both the FDP and SPD have suffered stunning losses after governing in the chancellor's shadow.

Until the high-stakes poker games between party chiefs result in a working government, Merkel will be restrained on the global stage and in Europe, where French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for ambitious reforms.

Refugee numbers

EU and euro politics, in turn, are shaping up as another divisive issue.

Merkel and the Greens have cautiously welcomed Macron's plans, but FDP chief Christian Lindner, who is eyeing the powerful finance minister's post, has assumed a far more sceptical tone.

He rejects any kind of "transfer union" - code for German taxpayers' money flowing to weaker economies - and said Europe must grow through "solidarity and competitiveness, not a failed policy of redistribution".

Lindner has praised, however, Seehofer's tougher stance on migration, declaring that refugee numbers "must be reduced".

The Greens, for their part, reject an upper limit for refugees, want to stop deportations of rejected asylum seekers to war-torn Afghanistan and favour steps to help Syrian refugees bring their families.

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