Merkel, defeated rivals sound out grand coalition
German Chancellor Angela Merkel launched into tough negotiations Thursday with the Social Democrats, her defeated election rivals who will seek a high price if they help her form a government.
For Merkel, who won elections almost a month ago but missed out on a majority, the Social Democrats (SPD) are now the only potential governing allies after her preliminary talks with the Greens broke down this week.
Her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian allies the CSU launched into a third and crucial round of exploratory talks with the centre-left SPD at 1100 GMT.
The meeting could pave the way for both sides to commit to full talks aimed at building a 'grand coalition'.
In the ongoing political poker game, the SPD, the traditional voice of working class Germany, has repeatedly made clear that a left-right alliance will not happen "automatically" and that it is not scared of staying in opposition.
A final hurdle would come when the Social Democrats' leaders ask their largely sceptical base of 470,000 members whether they want to again jump into bed with the CDU as they did in 2005-09.
After they governed in popular Merkel's shadow, the SPD suffered two poll defeats in a row -- most recently scoring only 25.7 percent against 41.5 percent for the conservatives.
Nonetheless, their kingmaker role has given them new swagger.
"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 Thuringian newspaper.
"And the Union with Chancellor Merkel at the top will have to pay."
Merkel 'will have to pay' for coalition deal
SPD general secretary Andrea Nahles has warned that "we expect intense discussions on substantive issues" ahead of the closed-door talks on neutral ground, in a Berlin parliamentarians' club.
As a sweetener, Merkel's CSU ally, Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer, has signalled he would relent on a key SPD demand, introducing a national minimum wage, as opposed to the conservative plan for a patchwork of market-driven pay deals by sector and region.
The SPD ahead of the September 22 vote had demanded a national minimum wage of 8.5 euros ($11) per hour to help Germany's growing army of temporary employees and working poor, who are a legacy of tough labour reforms a decade ago in Europe's biggest economy.
Seehofer signalled a softening position if the SPD also shows goodwill, notably backing off on its demand for higher taxes for the rich to pay for public outlays in education, infrastructure and other areas.
"For me the paramount issue is: no tax increases and no new debt," Seehofer was quoted as telling the Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
Merkel on Wednesday reiterated her opposition to the government setting minimum pay, warning at a trade union event that "we must be careful it doesn't destroy jobs".
Seehofer reportedly also signalled 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.
Such policy concessions would allow the SPD leadership to strengthen the case for a grand coalition at a party meeting with 200 senior delegates on Sunday.
Most observers expect that in the end the two mainstream parties will indeed form another grand coalition, which would give them a large and stable majority, with the Greens and far-left Linke in opposition.
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 favourably in Germany's consensus-driven political culture.
© 2013 AFP