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German Social Democrats endorse coalition with Merkel

Germany's center-left Social Democrats have voted in an unprecedented ballot among party members to enter a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservatives. Speculation now focuses on the cabinet line-up.

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Germany's SPD favors coalition

Social Democrat (SPD) treasurer Barbara Hendricks announced Saturday that a postal ballot among party members nationwide had produced 76 percent approval of the party executive's plan to form a coalition with Merkel's conservatives.

The three-quarters approval removes a key obstacle to Merkel's third term.

Of the 370,000 ballots returned, almost 24 percent voted against the proposed coalition. The returns accounted for 78 percent of the party's total membership.

SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel said he was "proud" of his party's "historic" exercise in participation, which, he said, had "set a new standard" in membership co-determination. He added that the party was "listening" to those who had voted no.

The special SPD count inside a former railway station in Berlin's suburb of Kreuzberg coincided with widespread media speculation on the potential line-up of Merkel's next cabinet.

The SPD ballot had been a pre-condition set by Gabriel and other top Social Democrats when two weeks ago they finished negotiating a draft coalition deal with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and her Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

SPD trailed on election night

In Germany federal election on September 22, Merkel triumphed by winning 41.5 percent on the back of a strong economy, but fell by five seats short of reaping an absolute majority.

The Social Democrats limped to second place with 25.7 percent. Merkel's previous partners, the pro-business liberal Free Democrats, failed to re-enter the Bundestag parliament.

If all goes to plan, Merkel will be formally re-elected as chancellor in the Bundestag parliament next Tuesday.

Speculation on cabinet line-up

Parallel with Saturday's SPD count, speculation in the German media indicated the retention in the next cabinet of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, one of the main architects of Germany's response to the eurozone crisis.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was the SPD's unsuccessful challenger to Merkel when she was re-elected to a second term in 2009, is awaited back at the foreign ministry.

Steinmeier served in that post during Merkel's first term of government from 2005-2009.

Media speculation indicated that the SPD's Gabriel would head a "super-ministry" in charge of the economy and Germany's ambitious energy transformation from nuclear power toward renewable sources, such as wind and solar power generation. Nahles was tipped to become labor minister.

There were also rumors circulating that Ursula von der Leyen could become Germany's first female defense minister. The 55-year-old labor minister also served as minister of family affairs during Merkel's first term and has become seen as an "all-purpose weapon."

Formal announcements on a 14-member cabinet are due Sunday.

Political scientists said alongside Merkel, her CDU will head five ministries. Three cabinet posts would go to her Bavarian allies, and six to the SPD.

Concessions extracted

During the coalition negotiations, Gabriel and SPD general secretary Andrea Nahles extracted a number of concessions from Merkel's conservatives, including a plan to introduce Germany's first minimum wage and restrictions on temporary jobs.

Leftists and the youth wing of the SPD had grumbled about aspects of the coalition deal.

If the SPD vote had failed, Merkel's only other practical options would have been to invite the reluctant Green Party into a potential coalition, or to call a fresh federal election.

ipj/oh (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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