BERLIN -- In the first step of what could be a long road to building a new German government, the defeated Social Democrats convened on Friday to decide whether to enter into talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives over a possible coalition, and what price to extract from her if they do.
Recent surveys have shown that a majority of Germans would like to see a "grand coalition" government between the country's two main parties, traditionally political rivals. But in the wake of Sunday's national elections, when the center-left Social Democrats had their second-worst showing since the end of World War II, many in the party are more concerned with building up a profile in opposition to Ms. Merkel's conservatives, having become wary of the potential political cost of entering a coalition that could make them appear to be too close to the chancellor.
"We are in an extremely difficult situation," Stephan Weil, a Social Democrat who is the governor of the state of Lower Saxony, told the ARD public broadcast network ahead of the talks, which began Friday night. "We need to agree on a course for the Social Democrats in the coming years, and that will involve a lot of wrangling tonight, but I expect there will be a clear decision."
The 200 delegates meeting Friday evening will have to decide not only whether to begin preliminary talks with the conservatives, but also which elements of the party's platform need to be part of any formal coalition agreement. They could include passage of a national minimum wage, repealing an unpopular family subsidy for young children who are cared for at home, and an increase in taxes for those in the highest-earning bracket.
It is even possible that Sigmar Gabriel, the party chairman, will ask that any decision to seek a coalition be put up for approval by all 447,000 members of the party, a high-stakes move that experts say could have far-reaching consequences.
"It would be very risky," said Timo Grunden, a political scientist at the University of Giessen. If the members vote to seek a coalition, it increases the pressure on Ms. Merkel's party, he said. But if they vote a leadership proposal down, he said, new national elections would be required, presumably along with new party leadership.
A new round of balloting could shift the current outcome, in which Ms. Merkel's conservative bloc, made up of her own Christian Democratic Union and a sister party, the Christian Social Union, emerged the clear winner, even though they came up five seats short of an absolute majority. Their partners in government for the past four years, the Free Democrats, failed to win enough votes to remain in Parliament, leaving the chancellor looking for a new party willing to enter into a coalition.
The other option for Ms. Merkel, the left-leaning Greens party, won only 8.4 percent of the vote, setting off a crisis in its leadership and leaving it in a weakened position to enter into talks with the conservatives.
Coalition-building can be an arduous process, all the more so when those involved are accustomed to opposing one another over key issues. When the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats had to work out an agreement in 2005, it took until the end of November for a government to be formed.
The Social Democrats have largely supported the chancellor's policy on the euro, despite hopes from Germany's partners in Europe that their inclusion in a new government might result in a softening of Ms. Merkel's position toward weaker members of the euro zone. Her initial comments on Monday gave no indication of any such intentions, insisting that European policy would continue "in the same spirit as before."
Alison Smale contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.