German Chancellor Angela Merkel, weakened by poor election results, started talks Wednesday to forge an unlikely governing coalition from a motley crew of parties that span the political spectrum.
Merkel's conservatives, who won the September 24 vote without obtaining a clear majority, launched exploratory talks with the liberal and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), then planned to meet from 1430 GMT the left-leaning and environmentalist Greens.
To avoid a breakdown that would force new elections, all sides will have to agree in the coming weeks on tough compromises on thorny topics ranging from immigration to EU reform to climate policy.
If the initial talks Wednesday go well, all sides will meet jointly on Friday to open negotiations that could form a government by perhaps January in the biggest EU economy.
The alliance, which would be a first for Germany at the national level, has been dubbed "Jamaica" because the parties' colours match the Caribbean country's flag -- black for the conservatives, yellow for the FDP and green for Greens.
"If you embark on a voyage to Jamaica, you can expect stormy waters," said negotiator Alexander Dobrindt of the Bavarian CSU party before heading into the talks.
The delicate negotiations come as Merkel, long seen as Europe's most influential leader, is increasingly described as a lame duck, past the zenith of her power in what is widely expected to be her final term.
Critics are snapping at the heels of the veteran chancellor for delivering the worst election result since 1949 for her Christian Democrats (CDU), followed by a state election loss last Sunday.
"Up until two years ago Merkel appeared untouchable," the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper wrote. "That aura of invincibility is now gone. Her power, too, is on the wane."
"If the CDU had any kind of challenger waiting in the wings, Merkel would have reason to worry."
- 'Massive hurdles' -
If trouble is brewing in Merkel's party, her more conservative Bavarian allies, the CSU, are in disarray, fearing another poll drubbing in state elections next year.
Having long railed against Merkel's decision to allow in more than a million asylum seekers since 2015, the CSU has signalled a sharp shift to the right to win back voters from the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD).
CSU chief Horst Seehofer reiterated Wednesday that limiting immigration was a "very, very important" goal.
The CSU's Dobrindt said earlier that Sunday's election victory in Austria of rightwing candidate Sebastian Kurz showed that the CDU/CSU must "position ourselves as a conservative force in these negotiations".
Such talk only heightens distrust with the Greens, who emerged out of the 1960s and '70s protest movements against the Vietnam war and nuclear weapons and who favour a multicultural society that welcomes refugees.
Greens negotiator Juergen Trittin pointed to growing rightwing and populist tendencies in the CDU/CSU bloc and warned that their hardline demands on the refugee issue would present "massive hurdles".
- 'Power crumbling' -
The other partner in the coalition talks, the FDP, is an easier fit, having previously served with the conservatives for lengthy stretches until they humiliatingly crashed out of the Bundestag at the last election in 2013.
Its youthful leader Christian Lindner, who led the party back into the Bundestag, has presented his own tough demands as he eyes the powerful finance ministry.
On the eve of the talks, Lindner even cautioned Merkel to refrain from any bold moves at the EU level, especially if it cost German taxpayers, before a new government is formed.
"I expect that Merkel... makes it clear that her government is only performing a caretaker role," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "Germany is currently not in a position to take decisions."
Given the competing interests, and the weeks of haggling over posts and policy ahead, the Spiegel Online news site predicted that "with a bit of luck, Germany may have a new government by January."
"Germany is experiencing a strange phenomenon," it said in a commentary.
"A new coalition is being negotiated by parties who don't really want it, while the aura and the power of the former and future Chancellor Angela Merkel is crumbling."
© 2017 AFP