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Steinbrück steps down as SPD mulls coalition talks with Merkel's CDU

The man who challenged Angela Merkel in the German election is quitting front-line politics. This came as his Social Democrats were considering whether to enter talks on joining a CDU-led coalition government.

Peer Steinbrück made the announcement to Social Democrat (SPD) delegates at a special party convention on Friday to discuss the way forward following the September 22 general election, in which Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) emerged as the overwhelming winners.

"My career will have an orderly ending," Steinbrück told supporters at the convention in Berlin.

News agencies also quoted Steinbrück as saying he would not seek any office within the party or the SPD's parliamentary group. It wasn't immediately clear, however, whether this meant he would leave the Bundestag.

Possible exploratory talks

The majority of the SPD's 200 delegates voted in favor of entering talks with the CDU in a late Friday vote. Five members voted against the proposal and three members abstained from voting.

While the vote on Friday night cleared the way for talks to begin as early as next week, the center-left party agreed that all SPD party members would have to approve any coalition agreement should the SPD seek an alliance with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

There is considerable skepticism among the SPD's membership about joining a so-called "grand coalition" with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

The German magazine Stern on Friday cited a survey by the Forsa polling company that found that 65 percent of SPD members opposed the idea of joining a Merkel-led coalition.

One cause for concern among the Social Democrats may be that unlike a previous grand coalition under Merkel's leadership from 2005-2009, this would be a very uneven alliance. After the 2005 election, Merkel's conservatives had just four more seats than the SPD, but Sunday's vote gave them 311 seats, compared to just 192 for the Social Democrats.

This could be expected to make it more difficult for the SPD to get some of the ideas it ran its election campaign on into any coalition agreement with the CDU.

This may be one reason the SPD's leaders are said to be considering putting any decision to actually join a coalition to the party membership.

The 311 seats won on Sunday by the CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is five seats short of a majority in parliament. This means Chancellor Merkel is in the market for a coalition partner that would give her a stable majority in the Bundestag. The CDU's preferred partners, who were part of Merkel's outgoing government, the liberal Free Democrats, were shut out of the Bundestag after they failed to clear the five-percent hurdle required to send deputies into parliament.

pfd/dr (Reuters, AFP, dpa)