Berlin: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) say they hope to find clarity soon on prospects for a new ruling coalition as they gear up for exploratory talks this week.
The conservatives, meeting on Monday to map out their negotiating positions, believe compromises can be reached to renew the "grand coalition" that governed for the past four years.
The two blocs must overcome differences over the future of Europe, pensions, health care and education. Merkel, whose CDU/CSU alliance last month failed to cut a coalition deal with two smaller parties after an inconclusive national election in September, is due to brief the media at 1pm (1200 GMT).
Senior conservatives on Saturday rejected the vision for a "United States of Europe" put forward by SPD leader Martin Schulz, weakened after his party posted its worst post-war election result in September.
But Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the conservative premier of the Saarland region, told broadcaster ARD that she hoped some progress could emerge from this week's talks with the SPD.
"Maybe we can take a first big step in this direction this week," she said. SPD Secretary General Lars Klingbeil told ARD his party was open to all possibilities, including a renewed coalition with conservatives or a minority government.
"The ball is now in Mrs. Merkel's court," Klingbeil said, adding that the pace of negotiations depended to a large extent on the core demands of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
"The SPD made its positions clear at its party conference. Now we'll listen to what the CDU leader wants, what the CSU wants, and it will be clear very quickly if further discussions are worth it," he said.
A poll published on Monday by broadcaster RTL and n-tv showed 71 per cent of SPD members welcomed the party's decision to talk with conservatives about forming a new ruling coalition, while 81 per cent wanted the party to conduct tough negotiations.
Klingbeil said his party would seek clear commitments from the CDU to spend more on education and combat childhood poverty before entering coalition talks.
Julia Kloeckner, deputy leader of the CDU, warned the SPD against making exaggerated demands and criticised comments Klingbeil made over the weekend suggesting that talks could stretch as long as May.
"If the SPD thinks we have time forever, that is not our view," she said. Monday's poll showed that 71 per cent of German voters favoured rapid negotiations on forming a new government. Kloeckner said it was clear that the two political blocs would have to revisit issues such as integration, digitalisation and development of rural areas before agreeing to a new coalition.
"A continuation of the previous grand coalition cannot happen," she said.