BERLIN: Chancellor Angela Merkel was struggling Sunday to prevent a collapse in high stakes coalition talks, which could force new elections and destabilise Germany and Europe.
Elections in September left the veteran leader weakened and without a majority as some of her party's voters turned to the far-right AfD, angered by her liberal refugee policy.
The disputed decision to let in more than a million asylum seekers since 2015 is also proving to be a stumbling block as she seeks an alliance with an unlikely group of parties spanning the left and right of the political spectrum.
Merkel's conservative CDU party and its Bavarian allies the CSU have been trying to find common ground with the pro-business FDP and the Greens.
Party chiefs had initially set 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) Sunday as the moment of truth, but the deadline went by without a breakthrough -- the second overtime after already missing a previous target on Thursday.
Bild daily said on its website that "failure is in the air" while other German media were speculating that parties may call time-out to reflect on their options.
If talks collapse, Germany risks returning to the polls in 2018, as the centre-left Social Democratic Party has ruled out returning to a coalition with Merkel after suffering a humiliating loss at September's elections.
CDU vice-chief Julia Kloeckner urged negotiators to "pull together and get something done".
For Merkel, who has years of gruelling EU negotiations under her belt, this could be the most important weekend of her political life.
"Today is not only about (the coalition), but also a day of destiny for Angela Merkel. If she fails to forge a coalition, then her chancellorship is in danger," said Bild.
Frank Decker, a political scientist at the University of Bonn, had no doubt about what is at stake.
"It is absolutely in her interest for this government to come into being, because failure would spell her end," he told the Phoenix news channel.
A poll by Welt online found that 61.4 percent of people surveyed said a collapse of talks would mean an end to Merkel as chancellor. Only 31.5 percent thought otherwise.
Merkel, in power for 12 years, had initially set a Thursday deadline to decide if the motley crew of parties had found enough common ground to begin formal coalition negotiations.
But the talks went into overtime without a breakthrough, with the hot-button issue of immigration emerging a key sticking point.
The CSU, which lost significant ground in Bavaria to the AfD and faces a state election next year, wants to limit the number of future arrivals to 200,000 a year.
The Greens were reportedly ready to give way on the CSU's demand, but in return, were insisting that war refugees -- who are granted only temporary protection -- should be allowed to bring their family members to Germany.
"We will not accept that people who are already getting a lower status of protection by law are also excluded from family reunions. That is inhumane," Greens negotiator Juergen Trittin told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
The Greens will be wary of making concessions ahead of a party congress in a week's time, and rank-and-file members can still torpedo any deal that they deem unsatisfactory.
German media also said that the FDP was throwing a spanner into the works and demanding both a cap on new arrivals as well as a halt on family reunification for war refugees -- something that the Greens are refusing to accept.
'Coalition of mistrust?'
Nevertheless, Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Welt am Sonntag newspaper that there is "no need to start holding panic debates about new elections".
He added that "all sides are aware of their responsibilities. And this responsibility means not returning their mandate to voters".
Meanwhile, there is little public appetite for new elections if the talks were to fail, with a poll by Bild am Sonntag showing that 50 percent are opposed while 47 percent are in favour.
If the potential tie-up, dubbed a "Jamaica coalition" because the parties' colours match those of the Jamaican flag, comes together, it would be the first of its kind at the national level.
But questions abound about how stable it would be.
SPD parliamentary chief Andrea Nahles told the Funke media group she believed such an alliance would be "a coalition of mistrust, in which there is constant conflict, where each one plays his own cards, and where there isn't teamwork".