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SPD agrees to negotiate coalition with Merkel

A special conference of Germany's center-left Social Democrats has voted to enter formal talks on forging a coalition government with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives. Those talks are set to begin next Wednesday.

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Germany's SPD to start coalition talks

German opposition Social Democrat (SPD) conference delegates on Sunday approved the launching of formal coalition talks with Chancellor Merkel. Final approval on any coalition pact negotiated will hinge on a poll of the SPD's 470,000 members.

SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel (pictured above), speaking in Berlin after Sunday's vote among core party members, said the formation of a coalition government was possible before Christmas, assuming that policy differences proved to be reconcilable.

He said he was "optimistic" about the subsequent poll among grass-roots members skeptical about repeating a "grand coalition," similar to the one in which the party served with Merkel from 2005-2009.

That legislative term finished in late 2009 with the SPD sidelined to the opposition benches by its worst election result since World War Two.

SPD majority for negotiations

A majority of the 229 delegates at Sunday's SPD conference in Berlin voted for formal talks with Merkel. Two abstained and 31 rejected the SPD executive's recommendation to open talks, Gabriel said.

In last month's German federal election, Merkel's conservative bloc emerged as the strongest political force in the new 631-seat Bundestag, but just short of a parliamentary majority - forcing her to seek a coalition ally.

Exploratory talks between Merkel's conservatives and Germany's opposition environmentalist Greens broke down last week. Similar exploratory talks with the SPD's top rank led to Sunday's outcome.

Talks could last a month

The formal negotiations are due to begin on Wednesday and could last more than a month.

According to an internal document cited by several news agencies, the SPD will present to Merkel's conservatives 10 demands that are described as non-negotiable.

These include a minimum wage of 8.50 euros ($11.50) per hour, equal pay for men and women, greater investment in infrastructure and education, and a common strategy to boost eurozone growth and employment.

The party will also demand equal pensions for seniors in the former West and East Germany, the ability to have dual citizenship and measures to make it easier to combine work with family life.

No mention is made in the internal SPD document of tax increases for Germany's wealthiest - a plank of September's SPD election campaign. The chancellor has ruled out such rises.

On Friday, Hermann Groehe, the general secretary of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said the Merkel camp, which also comprises Bavarian conservatives, would allot the whole of November for coalition negotiations with the SPD. The negotiations would be both "rapid and thorough," Groehe said.

Majority for coalition

On Friday, a Politbarometer survey for ZDF public television indicated that 83 percent of German voters would approve a broad coalition government, despite warnings from some business figures.

At the weekend, the chairman of the middle-sized business association within Merkel's conservative alliance, Carsten Linnemann, warned against generous handouts.

"This list of of social-political benefits is already long. How that is to be financed without creating new debts is a mystery to me at the moment," Linneman told the "Welt" newspaper.

Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann told the "Wirtschaftswoche" magazine that it was "important" that a new government create a budget with a buffer below the EU's threshold for new borrowings so as to "avoid unwelcome surprizes."

ipj/rc (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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