Merkel upbeat as coalition talks start

SPD team-up is German leader's best bet of forming stable govt and extending 12 years in office

BERLIN • German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday she was optimistic her conservatives and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) could agree to join forces as they embarked on five days of talks about reviving the "grand coalition" that has governed the country since 2013.

Persuading the SPD to team up with her is Dr Merkel's best bet of forming a stable government in Europe's largest economy and extending her 12 years in office, after her attempt to form an alliance with two smaller parties failed last year.

Arriving at the SPD headquarters for talks more than three months after a national election, Dr Merkel said the parties had a lot of work to get through in the coming days but intended to tackle it quickly, adding: "I think it can succeed."

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 centre-left party, which has members strongly opposed to a grand coalition rerun, has been playing hard to get.

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

SPD leader Martin Schulz said that while the outcome of the talks was unclear, his party would enter them constructively.

"We won't draw any red lines - rather, we want to push through as much red politics as possible in Germany," Mr Schulz said, referring to the party's colour.

Mr Schulz said five days should suffice to find 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 talks, and it is then up to an SPD party congress on Jan 21 for a decision to be made.

A coalition between Dr Merkel's CDU/CSU alliance - which lost ground to the AfD in September's ballot - and the SPD has governed Germany for eight of the past 12 years. A poll for broadcaster ARD showed that more than half of the electorate - 52 per cent - are sceptical about reviving it, while 45 per cent are in favour.

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.

Mr Norbert Roemer, SPD head in the regional assembly of North Rhine-Westphalia, told the RND newspaper group that no lawmakers in his state caucus favoured a grand coalition - unlike five years ago - with past experience meaning they no longer trusted Dr Merkel.

Mr Volker Bouffier, a senior member of Dr Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), told Rheinische Post newspaper his party intended to form a grand coalition but that it could not come at any price.

Mr Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) - the Bavarian sister party to Dr Merkel's CDU - said he was going into the talks in "high spirits" and participants needed to come to an agreement.

If they find enough common ground and the SPD gets backing from its members in a vote, the parties will proceed to full-blown coalition talks.

The consensus among politicians and observers is that those talks would last until at least March.

If the discussions fail, Germany could either face fresh elections or, for the first time in the post-war era, a minority government run by Dr Merkel.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2018, with the headline 'Merkel upbeat as coalition talks start'. Print Edition | Subscribe