Germany's new parliament sat for the first time on Tuesday even as the incoming coalition government tries to put together a policy program.
The direction the new parliament will take is unclear
Exactly one month after dramatic elections threw Germany into political chaos, the 614 newly elected lawmakers met in the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament.
The sitting, which had to take place within 30 days of the election, marked the official end of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's seven years in power, although he and his cabinet will continue to take care of state business until his successor, the leader of the conservative Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel, is in place.
Merkel completed her cabinet line-up on Monday, naming conservative ministers, including one of her fiercest political rivals, Horst Seehofer, to ministerial posts.
The cabinet of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats has begun four weeks of complex negotiations to hammer out a joint government program. The Bundestag is expected to sit in mid-November to formally elect Merkel as chancellor.
"We must take this criticism seriously"
The oldest member of the Bundestag, Interior Minster Otto Schilly officially opened the session. Afterwards, Norbert Lammert, a Christian Democrat who has been a member of parliament for 25 years, was elected its new speaker, replacing Social Democrat Wolfgang Thierse.
The new speaker, Nobert Lammert (left), with Angela Merkel
"Neither Germany’s parties and parliament nor the government and opposition are currently highly regarded by the German public," said Lammert. "We must take this
criticism seriously, because the huge challenges our country is facing can only be tackled if Germans regain trust in their political institutions."
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, have 226 seats in the lower house, just four more than Schröder's Social Democrats. Despite having given up his ambitions of serving a third term as chancellor, Schröder retains a seat in the Bundestag.
Attack on all fronts
The rest of the parliament is made up by the Free Democrats with 61 seats, the 54 lawmakers of the Left Party -- a mix of former communists and disgruntled Social Democrats -- and the former governing coalition partners, the Greens, who have 51 seats.
Germany’s new Left Party already vowed to attack the new government, especially on its social policies. The party unites former East German communists with former leftwing SPD members who were critical of Gerhard Schröder’s economic and welfare reforms, which they described as unfair to the poor. The environmentalist Greens are convinced that neither the government nor the two other opposition parties are sufficiently committed to environmentally sound policies.
Problems at home?
Meanwhile, the German press on Tuesday predicted problems ahead for Merkel from her own camp following the nomination of Seehofer to the agriculture ministry.
Known for his stance on the left wing of the conservatives, Seehofer has clashed with Merkel over her proposals to reform the health service.
Trouble from within - Edmund Stoiber and Merkel have their differences
Edmund Stoiber, the head of the CSU and the new economy minister, insisted on Seehofer's nomination to government in exchange for his support.
"Stoiber could not have brought a stronger Merkel opponent into the cabinet," commented the left-wing Tageszeitung daily.
Other newspapers said Seehofer was likely to side with the eight Social Democrat ministers in the government in opposing large-scale reforms.