BERLIN • Two weeks after winning the elections with a reduced majority, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the first step yesterday towards forming a government by trying to unite her bitterly divided conservative camp.
Dr Merkel held closed-door talks with her Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) allies, led by Mr Horst Seehofer who blames her open-door refugee policy for the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Mr Seehofer, who faces internal challengers and state elections next year, has revived his calls to cap refugee intake at 200,000 a year - a demand that Dr Merkel has consistently rejected as unconstitutional.
In an opening salvo yesterday, 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 commitment to "healthy patriotism".
The talks were expected to last deep into the night, with the CSU general secretary asking journalists whether they had "brought their sleeping bags".
Dr Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is facing state polls in Lower Saxony next Sunday. It is running neck-and-neck with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which badly needs a win after its defeat in the Sept 24 election.
SPD leader Martin Schulz, gleefully watching the family squabbles in Dr 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 per cent in the election, has stunned Germany by breaking a long-standing taboo on hard-right parties sitting in the Bundestag. AfD's success came at the expense of the mainstream parties, making it harder for Dr Merkel to form a working majority.
Her best shot now - if she wants to avoid fresh elections that could further boost AfD - is an alliance with two other parties that would make odd bedfellows, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the left-leaning Greens.
In the talks to come, players will fight for ministerial posts and issues ranging from European Union relations to climate policy. All must give a little to reach a compromise - but not too much, to avoid charges of selling out in a grab for power.
EU and euro politics are shaping up as another divisive issue. Until the high-stakes poker games between party chiefs result in a working government, Dr Merkel will be restrained on the global stage and in Europe, where French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for ambitious reforms.
Dr Merkel and the Greens have cautiously welcomed Mr 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 that Europe must grow through "solidarity and competitiveness, not a failed policy of redistribution".
Mr Lindner has also praised Mr Seehofer's tougher stance on migration, declaring that refugee numbers "must be reduced".
But the Greens reject an upper limit for refugees. They want to stop deportations of rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan, and favour steps to help Syrian refugees bring their families to Germany.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS