German Social Democrats flex muscles in thorny coalition talks

13th November 2013, Comments 0 comments

Germany's Social Democrats flexed their muscles Wednesday ahead of a rank-and-file gathering as they wrangle with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives over teaming up in government.

Nearly eight weeks after elections, Merkel is still locked in gruelling negotiations with the SPD on forming a right-left coalition after her bloc's strong showing which nevertheless fell five seats short of a ruling majority.

Divisions over a minimum wage, tax rises, mothers' pensions and gay marriage are among the thorniest, making an overall coalition accord still elusive with a deadline looming.

SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel faces a balancing act when he addresses a widely sceptical party base at Thursday's congress in the eastern city of Leipzig despite having pledged that members will vote on the eventual coalition deal.

He "is going to try to present the way the discussions are currently going as a success," political scientist Ulrich von Alemann, of Duesseldorf University told AFP, adding the mood among SPD members was "very split".

Gabriel's vow for the party's 470,000-strong membership to have the final say on the terms of any tie-up with the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their CSU Bavarian allies also puts Merkel under pressure.

Heading into her third term, she was cautioned by the government's panel of independent economic advisers Wednesday against easing up on reforms and urged to continue to set the right example on improving competitiveness in Europe.

The so-called "Five Wise Men" targeted in particular any weakening in plans for raising the retirement age to 67 and calls for a national minimum wage, both issues brought to the negotiating table by the SPD.

'Great scepticism' in SPD

Representatives of both parties blamed the other going into Wednesday's negotiations for the lack of progress.

While they have agreed in principle on a European financial transactions tax and capping rent increases, talks on transport and gay marriage broke down in recent days over SPD demands.

CSU general secretary Alexander Dobrindt said that if the SPD wanted a grand coalition it must stay "on the path of constructiveness". Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer, also of the CSU, accused the SPD of having an "intractable attitude".

Ralf Stegner, regional SPD chairman in northern Schleswig Holstein, told Wednesday's Die Welt newspaper that there was "great scepticism" within the SPD towards a grand coalition.

"Without clear improvements for people, I cannot recommend to the party members approving a coalition agreement with the Union (Merkel's bloc)" he told the daily.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper pointed out that the SPD's original deal-breaker, a national minimum wage, had not even been agreed.

"Overall, all contested topics were, for a start, placed at the back and, on the other hand, other topics may even no longer be seriously negotiated," it said.

According to von Alemann, SPD members are expected to give the green light to another grand coalition, despite its last left-right tie-up in 2005-2009 still leaving a bitter taste.

Among SPD officials however there is a recognition that "there isn't really an alternative", he commented.

"What they fear above all is the holding of new elections," said Gero Neugebauer from Berlin's Free University, amid analyst forecasts that the CDU would secure an even bigger victory.

Reaching out to its more reluctant members, the SPD is set to vote on a motion at its Leipzig congress that would open the door to a possible coalition with the far-left Linke party in future.

The SPD has long rejected such an alliance, considering the Linke, with roots in East German communism, too extreme.

"It's a sign to the (party) base showing that in the long term there are other solutions, and also to Mrs Merkel, to warn her that the SPD can also act differently," von Alemann said.

© 2013 AFP

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