Long, winding road

Under pressure, Merkel warms to coalition talks

CDU leader and acting German Chancellor Merkel and SPD leader Schulz shake hands a speech before exploratory talks about forming a new coalition government at the SPD headquarters in Berlin
Not-so-natural partners put on a brave face. Source: Reuters

Angela Merkel is optimistic her conservatives and the Social Democrats can cut a deal, the acting chancellor said on Sunday as the parties embarked on five days of talks about reviving the grand coalition that has governed Germany since 2013.

Persuading the center-left SPD to join her is now Ms. Merkel’s best shot at forming a stable government after she failed last November to form an alliance with two smaller parties. Arriving at SPD headquarters in Berlin for talks more than three months after the national election, Ms. Merkel said the parties had much work to do but intended to tackle it quickly. “I think it can succeed,” she added.

The SPD, which had said it would go into opposition after its worst election showing since 1933, reconsidered when Germany’s president intervened. But the center-left party, among whose membership opposition to a grand coalition re-run remains strong, has been playing hard to get.

A group called NoGroKo, meaning “no grand coalition,” has formed within its ranks to campaign against working with Ms. Merkel again, saying that would cost the SPD votes and make the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the main opposition party.

SPD leader Martin Schulz said that his party was entering the talks with the best of intentions. “We won’t draw any red lines – rather we want to push through as much red politics as possible,” Ms. Schulz said, referring to the party’s color.

He said that five days should suffice to figure out whether the parties had enough common ground to launch full-blown coalition talks. The SPD leadership is due to recommend on Friday whether or not to start those talks, and it will then fall to an SPD party congress on January 21 to make a decision.

“We won't draw any red lines - rather we want to push through as much red politics as possible.”

Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrats

The potential partners have agreed to a news blackout during the exploratory talks, which are due to finish on Thursday. A coalition between Ms. Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance – which lost ground to the AfD in September’s ballot – and the SPD has run Europe’s largest economy for eight of the past 12 years. But it has been viewed with skepticism by both politicians and voters as it leaves the opposition weak.

A poll last week for broadcaster ARD showed that over half of the electorate, 52 percent, do not want to revive it, while 45 percent are in favor. Not natural allies, the two camps are likely to clash on immigration, tax, healthcare and Europe – and expectations among other leading figures in the parties were mixed as the preliminary talks got under way.

Norbert Roemer, SPD head in the regional assembly of North Rhine-Westphalia, told RND newspaper group that no lawmakers in his state caucus favored a grand coalition, with past experience meaning they no longer trusted Ms. Merkel. The SPD in the eastern state of Thuringia was also skeptical about a tie-up.

Senior SPD member Thomas Oppermann told Welt am Sonntag newspaper that Ms. Merkel should step down and called for a chancellor’s tenure to be limited to eight or 10 years.

If after Thursday, the parties move on to more detailed coalition talks, the broad consensus is that those discussions would last until at least March. But if the initial talks fail, Germany could either face fresh elections or, for the first time in the post-war era, a minority government.

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