World From Berlin: Coalition Talks Could Last Into January

Angela Merkel and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel are on the brink of difficult and lengthy coalition talks. Zoom
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Angela Merkel and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel are on the brink of difficult and lengthy coalition talks.

It's quickly becoming clear how hard it's going to be for Angela Merkel to form a new government. The SPD wants the Finance Ministry and will ballot its members on any deal. In the end, though, they're likely to reach an agreement, say media commentators.

The election may have been held eight days ago, but Germany is no closer to forming a government. It could take until December or January, the general secretary of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), Andrea Nahles, warned on Monday. The SPD, in a canny move to drive up its price for joining a coalition and to secure grass-roots support for a deal, decided at a party conference on Friday that it will ballot its 470,000 members on any agreement. That means they can say in talks, "we can't give in on that point because our members won't back it."

That's bad news for Chancellor Angela Merkel, because it will make the talks to form a so-called grand coalition of the two main parties all the more difficult. As if that weren't enough, Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, an important conservative ally of hers, on Sunday narrowed her negotiating position with some undiplomatic rhetoric before preliminary talks had even begun.

He said the current debate among conservatives over whether to give in to SPD demands for tax hikes for the rich was "unspeakable and totally superfluous." In an interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, the notoriously outspoken Seehofer, brimming with confidence from his own victory in the Sept. 15 Bavarian regional election, said there would be no departing from the conservatives' election pledge to refrain from tax hikes and from higher new borrowing. "People have my word on that," he added in a comment that may well have ruined Merkel's Sunday.

Seehofer is head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to her Christian Democratic Union. She can't afford to snub or ignore him. The SPD was quick to respond. Ralf Stegner, the SPD's regional leader in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, dismissed Seehofer's comments, telling the Rheinische Post newspaper on Monday: "With Herr Seehofer you know that the Bavarian lion likes to roar loudly but keels over in the end."

Meanwhile, media reports say the SPD plans to demand six cabinet posts including the all-important Finance Ministry, a key position in the euro crisis, as well as the Family and Labor ministries. Lower Saxony Governor Stephan Weil of the SPD told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper he wanted the SPD to demand the repeal of a controversial benefit for stay-at-home mothers launched last year -- the benefit is a pet project of the arch-conservative CSU.

President Gauck Invites Parties for Talks

In a sign of concern at how difficult the talks are shaping up to be, President Joachim Gauck invited the leaders of all parties represented in the new parliament for bilateral talks this week to ascertain how they view the situation.

Gauck's position is largely ceremonial but he does have some constitutional powers relevant to the formation of a government, such as formally proposing a chancellor to be elected by the federal parliament, the Bundestag, and appointing them. He would also be involved if a new election were called -- a real possibility if coalition talks fail -- or if Merkel decided to rule with a minority government.

The first preliminary talks between the conservatives and the SPD are due to take place in Berlin on Friday. The SPD's six-member negotiating team will include chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück, who announced on Friday he will be quitting top-flight politics and focusing on his duties as an ordinary member of parliament.

His departure didn't come as a surprise -- he had said during the campaign that he would not serve in a Merkel-led government. He said farewell in an emotional 10-minute speech to an SPD party conference last Friday. "I will be grateful to the SPD as long as I can stand on my two legs," he said, drawing long applause. Steinbrück, 66, a former finance minister in the last grand coalition between 2005 and 2009 and a former governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, never really had a chance against the overwhelmingly popular Merkel. His campaign was marred by a series of gaffes.

German media commentators seem convinced that despite all the difficulties, the next government will be a grand coalition.

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"Angela Merkel is just five seats short of a majority but the SPD is dreaming of six ministerial posts. It's dreaming of the CDU abandoning all the promises with which Merkel won the election. They seem to be making up for their depression with a bout of megalomania. Five missing seats doesn't mean Merkel's victory is negotiable. When the conservatives and the SPD enter coalition talks, the following should be remembered: The ballot box didn't hand the SPD a mandate to enforce a change in policy. The German people gave Merkel a mandate to continue her policy. She won with two issues -- EU reforms and a rejection of tax hikes. The SPD lost this election with vague statements about Europe and because of its call for higher taxes. If the conservatives break their promise for the sake of the election losers, the EU partners will conclude that she will do the same with EU reforms. Then Paris and Rome will test her in the 2014 election for the European Parliament. A broken pledge today will undermine Germany's authority in Brussels."

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"There are two obstacles standing in the way of a grand coalition. The first one is called Horst Seehofer. The overbearing way in which he is doling out condescending advice to the SPD is like poison and will reinforce the deep skepticism about a coalition among SPD grassroots members. The planned membership ballot is the second obstacle. Members won't be won over by the party leadership securing six nice ministerial posts for itself. Critics will say it's all about policies, not jobs. A coalition agreement is meant to secure these policies. But sometimes such a coalition agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on."

"The SPD leadership will have to show substantial progress to persuade members to vote in favor of a grand coalition." One way to ensure the success of the grand coalition, the newspaper writes, could be a deal whereby the SPD would elect Merkel as chancellor and some of the legislation agreed in the coalition deal would be passed by parliament before the SPD signs the agreement. It would create a stable foundation for a power-sharing government, the paper argues. "A grand coalition isn't a heaven-sent option for either party, least of all the SPD. But such a coalition could be good for the country temporarily if it is well-founded."

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"In the end, the path into a grand coalition may not be the biggest problem for the SPD. The problem will be how to get out of a grand coalition. The party leadership is so plagued by the question of what kind of SPD will be running in the 2017 general election that it has said this is the last time it's ruling out an alliance with the Left Party. But it knows it will be the Left Party's main enemy once it's in a coalition with the conservatives. In the foreseeable future neither an SPD alliance with the Greens nor with the Greens and Left Party look feasible."

In fact, "Austrian conditions" -- persistent grand coalitions -- might become the norm in Germany, the paper added. Austria re-electedits left-right coalition government on Sunday.

David Crossland

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1. optional
peskyvera 09/30/2013
And I still say: get Die Linke involved.
2. optional
danm 09/30/2013
Seehofer’s comments are more telling than the author of this article seems to acknowledge. There has been much talk about what the SPD will demand, what the SPD must be given in order to form a coalition. The thing that is neglected in this analysis is the opinion among the CDU rank and file. Believe it or not they actually think they won the election and I doubt they are ready to surrender on a host of issues ranging from taxes to having a SPD ideologue heading the finance ministry.
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