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SPD ready to talk

Marcel Fürstenau / sgbOctober 21, 2013

Germany's Social Democrats want to form a government with Angela Merkel's conservatives. But the party is unlikely to get its way in the negotiations to begin this week.

SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel (Hannibal/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In Germany, a grand coalition - comprising the two largest parties, the conservatives (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) - is looking more likely than ever. Negotiations are set to begin on Wednesday in Berlin after the SPD Convention, the party's highest body, voted overwhelmingly on Sunday in favor. The most recent grand coalition was in 2005 to 2009 - Angela Merkel's first term as chancellor. The Christian Democrat will almost certainly continue to head the German government in what will be her third term.

The SPD's initial skepticism is gone

The initial groundswell of opposition to a grand coalition has continued to shrink. After only one dissenting vote was recorded in the 35-member SPD executive, party leader Sigmar Gabriel also gained a strong mandate for coalition negotiations from the nearly 230 delegates at an extraordinary party convention, around 85 percent of whom voted in favor.

Anti-grand coalition SPD protesters in Berlin (Hannibal/dpa)
SPD opposition to a grand coalition fizzled outImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The party is striking a note of confidence: "The SPD wants to govern for a socially just and modern, cosmopolitan and liberal Germany that is ready to meet its international responsibilities."

That is the opening sentence of the ten-point paper that the party takes with it into talks with Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Minimum wage the SPD's sine qua non

The SPD considers a nationwide legal minimum wage in Germany as essential and non-negotiable. At least 8.50 euros per hour to be paid in the future, no matter where and in what industry. A very ambitious demand, because especially in the underdeveloped east, hourly wages of less than four euros are not uncommon. However, the SPD can point out that legal minimum wages are common in most Western industrialized nations.

Merkel has already signaled a willingness to compromise with the SPD. There is some evidence that the SPD in turn adjusted its campaign demand for an increase in the top income tax rate from 49 percent to 45 percent. The conservatives outright reject an increase in the income tax.

Sociopolitical sticking points

There are also likely to be difficult negotiations ahead in the broad field of social policy. The SPD would like to allow dual citizenship. " Social cohesion includes the equal participation of immigrants in our society," the paper says; the compulsion to choose one citizenship should be abolished. "And we want to bring about improvements for refugees," the party said.

Party leader Sigmar Gabriel is aware that he must make a lot of compromises to be able to conclude a viable coalition agreement with the conservatives. The conservatives are only a few seats short of an absolute majority.

Eight years ago, things looked completely different. At that time, both parties were almost neck-and-neck, with 35.2 percent for the CDU/CSU to 34.2 for the SPD. That's why the Social Democrats were then able to help themselves to such important ministries as foreign affairs, finance and labor. This time they will have to be more modest.

Angela Merkel is also under pressure

But negotiations over ministries will be the last thing on the agenda, Gabriel said. This suggests the Social Democratic base may expect more than the conservatives are willing to give their potential coalition partners. Chancellor Merkel is also under pressure to succeed in her own party.

In her eight years at the top, she has brought her party closer to the policies of the SPD on many issues. There will therefore be little room for negotiation with the SPD about matters such as gay marriage. Merkel already hinted at this during the campaign.

Angela Merkel (CDU, L) and Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) (Tim Brakemeier/dpa)
Merkel and Gabriel worked together in the last grand coalitionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

If the conservatives and the Social Democrats agree on a coalition, it could still fail if the SPD rank and file oppose it. The approximately 470,000 members will vote on the result. It is unlikely that Gabriel will be able to present an agreement at the party congress in mid-November in Leipzig. He has suggested the new government would be in place by Christmas.

The newly elected parliament comes together for the first time on Tuesday, but Angela Merkel will initially carry on as a caretaker government until coalition negotiations are completed. It will then be incumbent on the parties to make rapid progress in those talks with regard to Germany's international obligations.