Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and opposition leader Angela Merkel were preparing for their first face-to-face talks yesterday on their rival claims to lead Germany after its inconclusive election.
Merkel's conservatives narrowly beat Schroeder's Social Democrats in Sunday's parliamentary vote and ended his seven-year coalition with the environmentalist Greens.
But the margin of victory was so narrow that Schroeder has refused to acknowledge defeat, insisting he should remain as chancellor to manage reforms that have so far failed to fire up Europe's largest economy.
With both major parties unable so far to muster enough support from smaller groups to form a majority, leaders have insisted ahead of the talks that they will look seriously at joining up in a "grand coalition."
But it remains unclear how Schroeder and Merkel will resolve their competing claims to be chancellor, raising speculation that both may have to stand aside or that the country will have to vote anew.
Merkel was to meet first yesterday with leaders of the Free Democrats. The pro-business party was Merkel's preferred coalition partner, but the two parties fell short of a majority.
With the Greens all but ruling out joining that constellation, and the Free Democrats refusing even to talk to Schroeder's party, the Social Democrats and conservatives are under growing pressure to seek common ground for a left-right alliance.
All Germany's established parties have ruled out talks with the Left Party, a grouping of former East German communists and renegade Social Democrats opposed to cuts in the country's creaking welfare programs.
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and their Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union, won 35.2 percent support in the election, compared to 34.3 percent for the Social Democrats.
The result was a shock for the conservatives, whom opinion polls had consistently given more than 40 percent support, damaging Merkel's authority within her party.
Schroeder argues that voters have decisively rejected her call for accelerated reforms to Germany's cherished welfare state and that his own party could never be her junior partner.
He also claims the two conservative parties, who have long formed a single faction in parliament, should be viewed separately, leaving the Social Democrats as the largest party.
Gernot Erler, a senior Social Democrat lawmaker said yesterday that the party was considering tabling a procedural amendment in parliament to formally split the two conservative groups.
Erler told RBB-Inforadio that the parties' relative strength would be the main central topic in the talks. "We will compare precisely these claims which the two sides are making," Erler said.