Germany's Merkel kicks off talks with Social Democrats on formation of new government

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the 5th African Union - European Union (AU-EU) summit in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Nov 29. PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (NYTIMES) - German leaders met on Thursday (Nov 30) night for more than two hours in their latest effort to end the country's political deadlock since inconclusive September elections and the collapse of coalition talks led by Chancellor Angela Merkel nearly two weeks ago.

This time, Dr Merkel was returning to her old coalition partners, the centre-left Social Democrats, to explore whether they could overcome past differences and more recent tensions to open negotiations on a new government together.

On Thursday evening, she met with Mr Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic Party's leader, at the presidential palace, along with the head of the Bavarian wing of her conservative bloc, as part of efforts by the German president to avoid a snap election.

After more than two hours of closed-door meetings, the leaders left the presidential palace without making any statements. They had mutually agreed not to divulge any details until they had an opportunity to inform their respective parties of the outcome on Friday, in part as a result of criticism that the previous talks failed because too many details were made public.

But Mr Sigmar Gabriel, a leading Social Democrat and Germany's acting foreign minister who was not present at the talks, indicated that the process could take longer than a few weeks, insisting that it would be unrealistic to expect his party to make a swift decision on how best to proceed.

"We're now in a process orchestrated by the president, in which we first need to look at what the possibilities are, but no one can expect it to go quickly," Mr Gabriel told the public broadcaster ZDF.

He said it was up to Dr Merkel's conservatives to make clear what they wanted.

Thursday's talks came at the urging of Germany's President, Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, after the Chancellor's attempt to form a government that would have combined conservatives, the ecologist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats collapsed on Nov 18.

"I expect everyone to be willing to negotiate and to make it possible to form a government in the foreseeable future," Mr Steinmeier said the next day.

He has since met in private with the leaders of all political parties, urging each to reconsider a return to the constellation that governed from 2005-09, and again since 2013.

But Mr Steinmeier will face challenges convincing the parties involved in those governments to come together again when all three leaders are struggling for their own political lives in a time of shifting alliances that has seen voters drifting from the centre to the fringes.

Seven parties - including the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, as the third-strongest force - made it into the new Parliament after the Sept 24 election, splintering traditional lines of cooperation and upsetting decades of consensus. That forced Dr Merkel to seek an alliance with two other smaller parties, instead of only one.

In the days following the vote, fearful of leaving the AfD as the strongest opposition force in the legislature, Mr Schulz emphatically ruled out his party's participation in another government led by Dr Merkel.

Following Mr Steinmeier's appeal, Mr Schulz was able to row back on that pledge, telling his party that he was responding to a request from the President.

"I cannot tell you what the outcome of these talks will be," Mr Schulz told reporters at a business conference in Berlin hours before the meeting began. "I can assure you only this: that I'll campaign for the best solution for our country, that my party is aware of its overall responsibility for political stability."

But any decisions on a path forward will have to be put to vote by the Social Democrats' members, who convene for a party congress in a week's time.

Many Social Democrats remain concerned that their already weakened party will further lose its profile if it joins another government under Dr Merkel - its third since 2005.

Several party members have emerged in recent days with demands for a new coalition, including changes to the country's healthcare system and more investment in education and digital infrastructure.

"It's clear that we need reliability and stability," Mr Schulz said before the talks. "But it's also clear that we need change."

Further poisoning the mood was a decision by the acting minister for agriculture, Mr Christian Schmidt, a member of the Bavarian wing of the chancellor's bloc, to break with coalition rules and vote in favour of extending the use of the herbicide glyphosate at the European Union this week.

In keeping with the coalition agreement, Mr Schmidt's "yes" vote should have been an abstention because the Environment Ministry, led by a Social Democrat, was opposed to extending permission.

Leading Social Democrats have accused Mr Schmidt of poisoning the atmosphere and eroding trust between the prospective partners before serious discussions even get underway.

Should the parties fail to reach an agreement, Mr Steinmeier could still nominate Dr Merkel, as leader of the largest party in Parliament, to serve as chancellor.

The nomination would then be put to a vote, which could result in her leading a minority government.

Many Social Democrats have suggested they would be happier with such a constellation than with returning to power as Dr Merkel's junior partners.

But the chancellor has rejected the idea as lacking the stability that Germany needs to pass legislation, including support for any EU reforms that would require parliamentary approval.

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