Merkel and defeated rivals set to seek grand coalition

Merkel and defeated rivals set to seek grand coalition

BERLIN - Agence France-Presse
Merkel and defeated rivals set to seek grand coalition

German Chancellor and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Angela Merkel (L) leaves with political colleagues after coalitions talks with the SPD.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and her defeated main election rivals, the center-left Social Democrats, agreed Oct. 17 to launch formal talks to build a “grand coalition” government.

Such a left-right alliance ruling Europe’s biggest economy would have a strong parliamentary majority and be able to drive through policies against the opposition of the two smaller parties, the ecologist Greens and the far-left Linke.

The deal to embark on thorny negotiations on policy and haggling over ministerial posts, likely from Oct. 23, came almost a month after Merkel’s party triumphed in Sept. 22 elections but missed out on a clear majority to form her third-term government.

“We have noted commonalities, we have noted differences and we have seen there is mutual trust,” said conservative negotiator Alexander Dobrindt, the general secretary of Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union.

Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), signaled that the traditional party of working-class Germany, would drive a hard bargain in helping Merkel back into power, especially on its core demand for a minimum wage.

Emerging from a meeting, he said Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) “knows that a general minimum wage of 8.50 euros ($11.5) is a central demand without which a grand coalition with the SPD wouldn’t make any sense.”

He said the seven-member SPD delegation had agreed unanimously that talks should go ahead and would take this proposal to a party meeting on Oct. 20, while the conservatives were to hold a party committee telephone conference later on Oct. 18.

Gabriel is under pressure to extract major concessions from the conservatives if he wants to convince the skeptical party base to vote in favor of again governing in the shadow of popular Merkel, as it did between 2005 and 2009.

That experience left the 150-year-old party badly bruised and disillusioned after two stinging poll defeats in a row – in the last election, it scored only 25.7 percent against 41.5 percent for the conservatives.

In the ongoing political poker game, the SPD has nonetheless displayed swagger in its new role of kingmaker – more so since Merkel’s only other possible partner, the Greens, who opted out of further talks this week.

“Now is the moment for the SPD: After the conservative-Greens exploratory talks collapsed, the SPD can drive up the price for an unloved grand coalition,” commented one regional daily, the Thüringische Landeszeitung. “And the Union with Chancellor Merkel at the top will have to pay.” 

A final hurdle will come when the Social Democrats’ leaders ask their 470,000 rank-and-file members whether they want to again jump into bed with the CDU/CSU, a scenario many members regard as humiliating and dangerous.

As a sweetener, Merkel’s CSU ally, Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer, had signaled earlier Oct. 17 he would relent on his opposition to a minimum wage if the SPD also shows goodwill, notably backing off on its demand for higher taxes for the rich.

“For me the paramount issue is: no tax increases and no new debt,” Seehofer was quoted as telling the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Merkel on Oct. 16 had, however, reiterated her opposition to minimum pay levels, warning at a trade union event that “we must be careful it doesn’t destroy jobs.”

Seehofer reportedly also signaled that he was open to ceding ground on another SPD demand, allowing dual nationality – a key issue for children of Turkish and other immigrants who now have to decide at age 18 whether to adopt the German or their ancestral citizenship.

Most observers have long expected that in the end, the two mainstream parties will indeed form another grand coalition.

Polls show that around two-thirds of Germans expect such an outcome, which – although almost unthinkable in peacetime in many other parliamentary democracies – is seen favorably in Germany’s consensus-driven political culture.