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Merkel's new govt push goes down to wire as parties dig heels in

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Chancellor Angela Merkel was struggling on Friday to find a coalition deal with Germany's second-biggest party, as a last-ditch round of negotiations goes down to the wire with "big obstacles" left to clear.

[BERLIN] Chancellor Angela Merkel was struggling on Friday to find a coalition deal with Germany's second-biggest party, as a last-ditch round of negotiations goes down to the wire with "big obstacles" left to clear.

After 18 hours of talks and still no agreement in sight between Mrs Merkel's conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats, weary negotiators said a result would likely not emerge before dawn.

Questions surrounding Germany's 2015 record refugee influx as well as issues related to the country's finances were sticking points even as Europe's biggest economy posted healthy growth for 2017 and a record surplus.

Mrs Merkel, who desperately needs to form a new government to salvage her political future, had warned that it would be a "tough day" of talks.

She said her conservative Christian Democrats would "work constructively to find the necessary compromises but we are also aware that we need to execute the right policies for our country".

September's inconclusive elections left Mrs Merkel without a majority and she has struggled to find partners to govern Europe's biggest economy.

After her earlier attempt at forging a coalition with two smaller parties collapsed, she is now pinning her hopes on renewing an alliance with the Social Democrats (SPD).

SPD leader Martin Schulz also spoke of "big obstacles" on the last day of preliminary talks in which the parties were sounding each other out over whether to move on to formal coalition negotiations.

The talks are not only crucial for Mrs Merkel, but also for Mr Schulz and the leader of Mrs Merkel's Bavarian allies, Horst Seehofer, said political analyst Karl-Rudolf Korte of Duisburg-Essen University.

"The negotiations are not just about a coalition, but also their careers. It would be the end for all three if this coalition does not come about," he told public broadcaster ZDF.

Germany's economic health has stood in stark contrast to the political paralysis, which has entered a fourth month.

In fact the political talks were tripped up by the country's strong finances, as parties had opposing views on how to manage the cash.

Seeking to push its social welfare agenda, the SPD is demanding greater relief for the lower and middle income brackets while seeking tax hikes for top earners.

But the conservatives had campaigned on a programme of "tax cuts for all".

Beyond fiscal and spending issues, the parties are struggling to fend off the encroaching far right, which has seized on anger over the influx of refugees and netted a record showing at the polls in September.

To halt a haemorrhage to the far right, Mrs Merkel's alliance wants a tougher stance on immigration, something that is hard to sell to the centre-left SPD.

Even if negotiators find a deal, it can still be torpedoed when SPD delegates and later rank-and-file members get to vote on whether the traditional labour party should once again govern in Mrs Merkel's shadow.

Scepticism is high within the party about joining hands again with Mrs Merkel after the SPD scored a humiliating result in September's election.

The SPD's youth wing chief Kevin Kuehnert told Zeit Online that he would embark on a national tour to press his case to opposing a new grand coalition before a September 21 party congress.

"The mood of the party rank and file with regards to a grand coalition is still grim. That's why I think we have a good chance," said Mr Kuehnert.

Gustav Horn, macroeconomic policy specialist at trade union-related foundation Hans-Boeckler, said for any coalition deal to succeed, the SPD's leadership needs "something tangible to put to their members where they can say 'those are SPD policies, and that's why we're going into this grand coalition'".

"If that doesn't happen, then Martin Schulz will have great difficulties... to convince party members of the necessity of this grand coalition," he said.

After all, there is little appetite for a new conservative-SPD alliance.

A survey published by Focus magazine found that only 30 per cent of Germans favour a return of the grand coalition, while 34 percent prefer new elections.

Another poll, published by public broadcaster ARD, found that only 45 per cent viewed a new GroKo positively, while 52 percent did not.

And a third survey, for business paper Handelsblatt, showed that 56 per cent believed Mrs Merkel would not see out her four-year term.