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Gabriel seeks to fire up Social Democrats after subdued conference

Social Democrat chairman Sigmar Gabriel has sought to rally party colleagues at their conference in Leipzig. The SPD is lagging after election defeat and amid difficult coalition talks with Angela Merkel's conservatives.

Sigmar Gabriel struck a fighting tone in Leipzig on Saturday at the end of a rather muted party conference for Germany's Social Democrats. Having emerged a distant second in the polls on September 22, the party is now negotiating on a coalition government with their rivals, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

"I will not lead the SPD, 150 years after it was founded, into any arrangement that does not have my full confidence," the party chairman said in a fiery 20-minute speech.

Gabriel reiterated a string of key policy points for his party - including a minimum hourly wage of 8.5 euros ($11.47), rent prices, and changes to German rules on dual citizenship - saying he planned to broker a deal that would incorporate them.

"If all of that is included in the coalition deal, for goodness' sake, then we cannot leave any doubt that we will sign it as a broad majority within the SPD," Gabriel told his colleagues in the eastern city of Leipzig on Saturday.

The current coalition talks are scheduled for conclusion later in November; Social Democrat party members will then be asked to vote on the deal.

'I will need your help'

Gabriel conceded that the party was in a difficult phase, having managed an improvement of just over 2 percentage points in the polls over their 2009 election results - a post-war record low for the SPD.

"This party conference is taking place at the most inopportune of moments," Gabriel said, after earlier addresses prompted very little applause and enthusiasm from delegates at the three-day event.

Despite the difficulties, Gabriel appealed to all members of the party to dust themselves off and regroup after the disappointing election. Party members on Friday re-elected several senior party figures to their posts, although many of the key politicians won less support than in the past. Gabriel was voted back into his post on Thursday.

"It's not just me or us that's insecure, it's not just this party conference that reflects this insecurity, it is also our party members," Gabriel said, adding that even tougher negotiations would be required to secure all the party's key demands from Merkel's conservatives. "If we are going to manage that, then I will need your help," he said.

CDU questions balance

Ralf Stegner, state premier of Schleswig Holstein, said Gabriel's address was "a wake-up call" for the party, urging his partners to be tougher negotiators than Merkel's former parliamentary allies, the pro-business Free Democrats.

"We will not betray our credibility for the sake of controlling a few ministries," Stegner said. "The SPD is not available on Free Democrat terms."

Senior Christian Democrats on Saturday argued that their rivals were seeking too much influence in the coalition negotiations. The deputy chairman of the parliamentary bloc, Michael Fuchs, told the business weekly 'Wirtschaftswoche' that the prospect of a party members' vote on any coalition deal put added pressure on the CDU.

"We can't let the Social Democrats lead us round on a leash," Fuchs warned when speaking to Wirtschaftswoche. He said it was disproportionate that around 120,000 Social Democrat members could vote on a coalition deal, "while the fate of the CDU, which was the clear election winner with 42 percent, is ultimately decided by a handful of people."

The Christian Democrats currently do not plan a members' vote on any future coalition agreement.

msh/ph (AFP, dpa, Reuters)