Merkel's fate in SPD hands as members vote on power pact

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Leaders of Germany's Social Democrats voiced hope Saturday they would be able to persuade rank-and-file members to join forces in government with Chancellor Angela Merkel and end a damaging political impasse.

The SPD started campaigning Saturday ahead of a referendum that spells the last threat to Merkel's hopes of forming a new government, five months after an inconclusive election.

In a vote expected to be tight, the more than 460,000 members of the deeply divided centre-left SPD will cast their ballots on a plan to enter a new coalition as junior partners to Merkel's conservatives.

Andrea Nahles, who is set in April to become the SPD's first female leader, said she was "very optimistic" after the launch of the campaign in the northern port city of Hamburg.

"We feel that the coalition deal that we negotiated has a great deal of support (among party members)," she said.

The vote, which starts on Tuesday, comes as the 153-year-old party's ratings are in freefall, with latest opinion polls giving it just 16 percent support -- only one point ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

If the SPD rank-and-file give the thumbs up in the results to be announced on March 4, Merkel will likely launch her fourth-term government by late March.

If they vote no, Germans will probably face a snap election, prolonging the political limbo in Europe's biggest economy and threatening the end of Merkel's 12-year reign.

A tense SPD leadership hopes that restive party troops will back their plans for a new "grand coalition", dubbed "GroKo", despite deep-seated fears the party will suffer further in the shadow of Merkel.

Opinion polls suggest two-thirds of SPD voters support another right-left alliance, but the mood of active members is hard to gauge.

- #NoGroKo -

Few dare make any predictions about the ballot given the volatile mood in the party, which scored a historic low of 20.5 percent in the September election and has been ruptured by harsh infighting.

"It is undeniable that we have all made mistakes in recent months which have led to criticism from the grass roots," Nahles said in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine.

The party's youth and left wings are driving a concerted #NoGroKo campaign.

They argue that the party must recover and rebuild in opposition -- which would force Merkel to opt for a minority government or face a new election -- rather than betray its cherished ideals in another grab for power.

"If we're scared of new elections, we may as well close up shop," argues youth wing leader Kevin Kuehnert, 28.

But Rainer Litte, a 77-year-old party member, backed Nahles.

"I am in favour of GroKo and I think it's important that we form a stable goverment," he told AFP.

The SPD's credibility and electoral fortunes have been badly bruised by a series of U-turns, which on Tuesday saw Martin Schulz glumly resign as leader after less than a year in the post.

Schulz, the third candidate in a row defeated by Merkel, had declared minutes after the election debacle that he would take the party into opposition to rebuild its combative spirit.

However, he reversed that decision when Merkel's initial attempts to form a separate alliance with two smaller parties failed.

In arduous negotiations, Schulz's team managed to wrest some policy pledges, and the foreign, finance and other crucial cabinet posts, from Merkel's conservatives.

However, his subsequent grab for the foreign ministry, after he had earlier ruled out personally serving in a Merkel cabinet, was seen as one broken promise too many and sparked a party outcry.

- 'Heal wounds' -

Schulz said he hoped that "time will heal the wounds" as he stepped down.

As the party tries to recover from the damaging turmoil, Kuehnert is pushing on with a passionate campaign to torpedo the GroKo deal.

His Jusos (Young Socialists) organisation has controversially urged voters to join the party with the sole purpose of preventing another Merkel power pact, arguing that any common ground the two big parties once had has been used up.

The ballot-box pain of Germany's two mainstream parties was in large part a result of the rise of the anti-Islam AfD.

Railing against a mass influx of refugees that peaked in 2015, the populists won almost 13 percent of the vote with their Germany-first rhetoric and angry demand that "Merkel must go".

If the SPD referendum fails, both major parties fear the likely result will be fresh elections and a further boost for the AfD.

© 2018 AFP

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