Resistance is growing in the ranks of Germany's Social Democrats against forming another "grand coalition" with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, and migration policy is a major sticking point.
Migration remains the most divisive issue in the country following the slaying late last month of a teenage German girl by her former boyfriend, an Afghan migrant.
The killing has refocused public anxiety about a rising level of violent crime associated with migrants, as well as the government's handling of thousands of unaccompanied male asylum-seekers who claim to be under 18 years of age, but who may be adults.
The December 27 killing of the 15-year-old girl prompted a tabloid press furor. It followed a series of brutal crimes by young male migrants, including the slaying in September of a 19-year-old medical student by a 22-year-old Afghan migrant, who told a court he posed as a minor to improve his immigration chances.
In his case, public anger deepened when it emerged he had been jailed for attempted murder in Greece, but released under an amnesty before making his way to Germany.
In July of last year, another adult male migrant claiming to be a teenager went on an axe rampage on a train, injuring several people before being shot dead by police.
The reports of migrant-related crime are adding to Merkel's difficulties in pulling off a coalition deal with the Social Democrats (SPD) that would allow her to remain Germany's leader.
Social Democrat rebels object to a cap on the number of migrants allowed to resettle in the country that was included Friday in a preliminary agreement among the parties. Chancellor Merkel's junior partner, Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), is demanding a 220,000-person a year cap on the resettlement of asylum-seekers.
Migration differences contributed to the collapse of weeks-long coalition talks last year among her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Green party, following federal elections at the end of September.
Those elections left Merkel's ruling CDU the largest party, but with a reduced share of the vote and fewer seats thanks partly to a surge by Germany's far-right populists. The SPD recorded its worst electoral performance since 1933.
In last week's negotiations with the SPD, the Bavarian CSU conservatives insisted on the resettlement cap and have been demanding medical tests for unaccompanied male migrants suspected of lying about their age. SPD activists accuse the CSU of exploiting the migration issue, arguing that young German males also commit crimes.
Since the migration influx started in 2015, when Merkel offered an open-door policy to asylum-seekers from war-torn countries, crime rates have risen. Violent crime rose 10 percent between 2014 and 2017 in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
The migration cap has enraged some SPD rebels, who say it is unconstitutional. They also want a new social security plan and stronger protections for employees.
Changes to coalition deal
Speaking to Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper, the city's mayor, Michael Muller, said the preliminary coalition talks "fell short of party expectations." He refused to rule out the possibility of SPD delegates withholding their approval, the coalition talks collapsing, and the need for new elections.
SPD leaders fear party members will reject the outline coalition agreement when they vote on January 21 and are scrambling to seek changes in the deal. Rank-and-file skeptics remain bruised by the SPD's poor performance in last year's elections and doubtful it should agree to a renewed version of their 2013-2017 "grand coalition" with Merkel's conservatives.
Talk of seeking changes in the provisional deal struck Friday is angering conservatives. Julia Kloeckner, a deputy CDU leader, questioned the trustworthiness of the SPD. "You negotiated, raised your hand for the complete exploratory package," she said
"Being able to trust means being able to rely on the word of the other," she tweeted. "Everything was negotiated in the package, no cherry picking please!."
CDU lawmaker Thomas Strobl told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland, “What we have agreed upon with each other is valid."
On Saturday, delegates at a regional SPD conference in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt voted 52-51 against agreeing to a "grand coalition" with Merkel, despite a plea by former party leader Sigmar Gabriel to back the deal for the sake of German stability.
The teenage girl's slaying will "inevitably have repercussions for ongoing coalition talks in Berlin," said Marcel Fürstenau, a commentator for Deutsche Welle, Germany's public international broadcaster. "One thing seems impossible: that people, despite being understandably horrified and outraged, might deal with it calmly."