GERMANY’S main centre-left party cleared the way for Angela Merkel to start her third term as chancellor last night, announcing that its members had voted to join the conservative leader in a “grand coalition” government.
The ballot of the Social Democrat Party’s (SPD) nearly 475,000 members capped post-war Germany’s longest effort to form a government. It set the stage for parliament to re-elect Merkel on Tuesday – ending nearly three months of post-election political limbo in Europe’s biggest economy.
A No vote by party members could have resulted in a political crisis for Germany.
Around 76 per cent of members who took part approved a deal to form a Left-Right government and about 24 per cent voted against.
Following their defeat in the election, the SPD lobbied hard to convince sceptical members to allow its MPs to enter a coalition.
Analysts have viewed the nationwide polling of SPD members a clever strategic move. It also means that Merkel will have to accept many of the SPD’s left-of-centre policies, even though the conservatives scored a resounding 41.5 per cent of the vote in September compared to 25.7 for the SPD.
“We’re not only the oldest party in Germany but we’re also the most modern party – the party of mass participation,” SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel told some 400 cheering volunteers who had spent the day counting some 369,680 ballots in a cold Berlin warehouse.
“We’ve set new standards,” added Gabriel, who managed to turn September’s electoral defeat into a rallying-point for the SPD with the referendum gamble. “We don’t just talk about grassroots democracy. We live it.”Gabriel, who is likely to become vice-chancellor, added that the SPD had shown a great “sense of responsibility” to Germany’s 82 million people. Merkel’s conservatives won the 22 September elections but fell short of a majority. Their previous coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democratic Party, failed to get the necessary 5 per cent needed to enter the Bundestag under German election rules.
It effectively shut them out of parliament until the next election and forced Merkel to reach across the chamber for new allies.
The Social Democrats already served as Merkel’s junior partners once, between 2005 and 2009 in her first term, but emerged weakened from the experience and suffered a steep drop in votes. In September, they finished a distant second to Merkel’s Union bloc. In an effort to counter members’ strong initial resistance to working again with their traditional rivals, Gabriel took what appeared the risky move of pledging an unprecedented ballot of the party’s full membership on any coalition deal.
Gabriel and other leaders toured Germany over recent weeks to sell to members the deal Social Democrats and conservatives hammered out last month.
It featured key centre-left demands including the introduction of Germany’s first mandatory national minimum wage, at ¤8.50 (£7.17) an hour and a change to the pension system that will allow some long-time workers to retire at 63 on full pensions.
However, Germany’s position in Europe’s debt crisis will remain largely unchanged and Merkel’s conservatives refused to raise taxes for high earners.
A conference of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union approved the coalition deal on Monday. Its general secretary, Hermann Groehe, welcomed the result of the Social Democrats’ ballot.
“We are glad that our work together in government can now begin quickly,” he said.
The new government will have an overwhelming parliamentary majority. It holds 504 of the 631 seats in the lower house; the rest are held by the left-leaning Greens and the hard-line Left Party.
The coalition partners have yet to announce how the cabinet posts will be divided up.
Speculation swept Berlin that Ursula von der Leyen, an ambitious potential heir to Merkel, would become defence or interior minister.
The coalition agreement is due to be signed tomorrow and Merkel’s new government could be sworn into office on Tuesday.