German parties struggle to seal final coalition deal



Sun, 04 Feb 2018 - 10:07 GMT


Sun, 04 Feb 2018 - 10:07 GMT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz cannot afford to dig in their heels with many people questioning why it is taking so long to form a coalition - AFP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz cannot afford to dig in their heels with many people questioning why it is taking so long to form a coalition - AFP

GERMANY - 5 February 2018: Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and their historic centre-left rivals failed to seal a coalition deal Sunday, as party leaders struggled to overcome final obstacles to forming a government for Germany.

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) had met for a final round of negotiations late in the morning, hoping to ink an agreement on repeating the "grand coalition" or "GroKo" that has ruled since 2013.

But by early evening SPD general secretary Las Klingbeil told journalists points remained that "divided" the parties, as they parted before a return to the table at 1000 (0900 GMT) Monday.

People familiar with the talks told AFP that topics close to the SPD's heart, healthcare reform and temporary work contracts, were holding up a final accord.

SPD and CDU agreed in late January that the final round of coalition talks should come to an end by Tuesday.

Merkel professed her "good will, but also some expectation that there will be tough hours of talks ahead" in the morning as she arrived at the SPD's Berlin headquarters in the late morning.

Meanwhile, SPD chief Martin Schulz told reporters a "dependable coalition agreement that achieves consensus" for a stable government was more important than speedy progress.

More than four months after September elections -- a delay unprecedented in postwar history -- Germany's partners abroad are waiting impatiently for Berlin's paralysis to lift on urgent issues like reform of the European Union.

Both sides are reluctant to compromise too much and risk losing support, but are equally fearful of going back to voters in repeat elections that could see a further rise of the far right.

Nor can they afford to dig in their heels, as a poll for ARD television showed 71 percent of people do not understand "why forming a government is taking so long".

At stake for Merkel is whether she leads a stable coalition into her fourth term, or risks a fragile minority government or new elections.

The SPD is a reluctant partner, having initially vowed to go into opposition after plunging to a historic low vote share of 20.5 percent in September.

Social Democrats agreed to talks only after Merkel's soundings with two smaller parties, the ecologist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, fell through.

Challenged by rebels within his own ranks, SPD leader Martin Schulz has sought political cover by putting any final coalition deal to a vote by all 440,000 members.

- Directionless -

Kevin Kuehnert, leader of the SPD youth wing, has become a standard bearer for opponents of a new deal with Merkel.

"This kind of politics was rewarded with a 14 percentage point drop (for CDU and SPD combined) last year, and I suspect things will continue that way" if the coalition materialises, he has said.

Others warn the SPD is too weak to face voters again so soon, garnering 18 percent in some polls -- just a few points ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Merkel too faces grumbling among her troops, with more conservative voices accusing her of marching her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) too far into the political centre, giving up terrain to the AfD.

Meanwhile, the press has scented the end of an era approaching.

Eight years of GroKo under Merkel -- from 2005-09 and again from 2013-17 -- had shown that "the lowest common denominator achieves nothing as long as there is no overarching idea," commented Stefan Braun for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Public backbiting between the parties highlighted how "hesitant, quarrelsome, demoralising and above all uninspiring" the whole process was, he wrote.

Merkel and Schulz should offer honest, ambitious answers to the country's big challenges or "leave the way clear for new leaders or new elections".

- Big bet on Europe -

The far right has profited from public fears about the arrival of more than one million migrants and refugees since 2015.

It dances along the line between widespread concern over the effort that integrating so many new arrivals will take and outright racism, xenophobia and conspiracy theories.

And the AfD's entry into parliament, complicating coalition arithmetic, is largely what has forced the unwilling CDU and SPD together again.

Merkel's struggles to form a government have had consequences abroad with some now looking to Paris and youthful French President Emmanuel Macron for leadership rather than to Berlin.

Germany -- a vital partner for reforming the EU -- has been guardedly open to some of Macron's grand plans for the bloc.

But Schulz, a former European Parliament president, has founded his decision to enter talks with Merkel on determination to seize the hand proffered by France.

"The fight for a stronger, renewed Europe" must be top of the new government's to-do list, he declared last week.



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