Members of Germany's Social Democratic Party have given their approval to a coalition with Angela Merkel's conservatives. More than three-quarters said yes - paving the way for the new government.
In the end, everything went faster than planned. In the early afternoon the votes of the SPD members were counted. Originally, the press conference by SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel was planned for the evening. But the ultra-modern envelope opening machines that were entrusted with the postal ballot documents apparently worked faster than expected. And so Barbara Hendricks, the chairwoman of the electoral commission was able to announce the result at 3 pm: "A total of 337,880 votes were cast, of which 316 were invalid. Voting yes were 256,643. This corresponds to a rate of 75.96 percent. The no votes totaled 80,921 - a rate of 23.95 percent."
Overall, 77.86 percent of SPD members participated in the ballot. However, about 32,000 votes could not be counted because they contained form errors or the affidavits that had to be included with the ballot were missing.
A happy party leader
Sigmar Gabriel was very pleased with the result. "I haven't been as proud to be a Social Democrat for a long time as I am in these weeks and months," he said with a smile. He said he had not seen his party so politically committed for a long time. "A vibrant German Social Democratic movement has shown that we're not only the oldest democratic party in Germany. We are also the party of participation." He said he was firmly convinced that, with this grassroots decision, the SPD had set new standards for citizens' political participation in Germany. "It was a festival of inner-party democracy and a festival of democracy itself. This day will go down in the history of democracy."
Gabriel also addressed the party members who had voted against the grand coalition, saying he also took them and their reasoning very seriously. He said he would do everything possible to convince them that the majority had been right with their decision over the next four years. He also called on the opponents of the grand coalition in the SPD to continue to participate as committed party members and to bring their doubts and criticism into the discussion.
Hundreds of volunteers
Gabriel also had a sound bite ready for the many journalists at the former postal railway station in Berlin's Friedrichshain district where the vote was announced: "Perhaps you'll write a bit differently about the SPD after today," he said, accompanied by the frenetic applause of party officials and the many volunteers who had gathered in the hall. They had come to Berlin from all over Germany to take part in this event, 400 men and women in total volunteering unpaid to count the votes since midnight.
Soon to be ministers?
Along with Gabriel, SPD General Secretary Andrea Nahles, parliamentary leader Frank -Walter Steinmeier, former parliamentary secretary Thomas Oppermann and deputy party leader Manuela Schwesig had come to Berlin for the announcement of the result. They all are being tipped for posts in the cabinet and in parliament. Steinmeier is expected to be foreign minister again, Oppermann, to succeed him as parliamentary party leader. Schwesig is being talked of as the new minister of the family and Nahles as labor minister. Gabriel himself is expected to take over the expanded economics ministry, which will now also oversee energy. He declined, however, to comment on speculation about future posts. The new cabinet will be announced on Sunday.
Triumph for Gabriel
One thing is clear: today was a triumph for Gabriel. He had initiated the member referendum and campaigned throughout the country in recent weeks for members to vote yes. If they had not done so, it would have severely compromised his reputation and his position at the head of the party. But with this result, he is the undisputed strongman at the top of the SPD and may well soon be vice chancellor at the side of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In the evening, the future coalition partners announced officially the assignment of the ministerial posts. The CDU will have the chancellor and five ministers. Its sister party, the CSU, will have three ministries. The SPD will have six.
Consumer protection in the justice ministry
The CDU will continue to occupy the finance, interior, defence, health, education and research. It also gets the minister of state to the chancellor. The interior ministry had up to this point been led by the CSU, which will now take over the development ministry.
The CSU will retain responsibility for the department of transportation, which will be expanded to cover digital infrastructure issues, and the ministry of agriculture, though it must hand over consumer protection to the SPD-led justice department.
In addition to this new department of justice and consumers, the SPD will have the foreign ministry, a Ministry of Economic Affairs now enhanced with an energy policy mandate, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Family Affairs. In addition, the SPD will hold the vice-chancellor seat. The SPD also additionally took on the post of Minister of State for Migration and Refugees, while the State Minister of Culture post will remain with the CDU.