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Social Democrat leaders advocate formal coalition talks with Merkel

The formation of Germany's new ruling coalition is likely to take a big step forward on Sunday. Ahead of a special party conference, Social Democrat leaders have recommended formal talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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SPD 'yes' to coalition talks expected

Senior Social Democrats urged their party colleagues at the weekend to consider formal coalition talks with archrivals the Christian Democrats (CDU), with a view to being the junior partners in a "grand coalition" government.

Since the environmentalist Greens rejected the idea of a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, only the Social Democrats (SPD) remain as a practical option for the CDU.

More than 200 SPD delegates will attend the post-election convention, voting on the official party recommendation to launch formal coalition talks - to follow the exploratory talks of the past two weeks - with the Christian Democrats. The two parties campaigned on rather contradictory economic and social platforms, prompting some SPD politicians to question whether they could come to a consensus and govern.

"I expect a lively discussion with the delegates. And that's just as it should be," said SPD party chairman Sigmar Gabriel in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper. "If there is the chance to make improvements on the labor market, in education, with local municipalities, on pensions and in many other areas, then the SPD must seriously examine this opportunity."

Secretary general Andrea Nahles similarly told the Leipziger Volkszeitung that despite the key disagreements between the two sides, "In the end, a coalition can be formed that would bring about an improved quality of life for millions in Germany."

Even the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and arguably the most vehement top-level opponent of a grand coalition, Hannelore Kraft, told a paper in one of the most impoverished parts of her own state that the SPD could do more good in government than in opposition.

"A change in policy is now possible for which the SPD has fought for years," Kraft told the Ruhr Nachrichten ahead of the convention.

No new taxes, but a minimium wage?

The coalition talks will likely turn into a process of compromise - with policy promises and the allocation of the various ministries likely to prove the most valuable bargaining chips. News magazine Spiegel reported early on Sunday that it had obtained an SPD list of 10 "essential" core policy demands that the party would take to formal talks with Merkel's conservatives.

Of these 10 demands, a nation-wide minimum wage of 8.5 euros ($11.63) per hour was top of the list. However, tax increases for high-earners - another core campaign point for the Social Democrats - was reportedly not included in the coalition demands. Several papers had already suggested over the weekend that the country's two largest parties would reach such a compromise, leaving tax rates alone but moving Germany into the European mainstream by introducing a minimum wage.

Despite describing the 10 points as "essential," Spiegel reported that the party document went on to acknowledge: "We will negotiate fiercely in this matter, in order to create a government capable of action. For this, compromises will also be necessary."

In a further indication of an impending grand coalition, both the SPD and CDU said on Saturday that they would consider voluntarily changing some parliamentary rules to strengthen the opposition. Less than 20 percent of the seats in the lower house, the Bundestag, would belong to the opposition parties if the CDU and SPD joined forces.

To initiate an investigative parliamentary committee, for example, 25 percent of the Bundestag vote is required. Both main parties have indicated they would consider lowering such hurdles in a grand coalition. A CDU spokesman said this was because "an opposition with teeth is the life-blood of any parliamentary democracy."

msh/lw (AFP, dpa, Retuers)

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