Newspaper article International New York Times

Germany's Coalition Drama Nears a Climax ; Social Democrats Face Possible Mutiny as Pact Put to Membership Vote

Newspaper article International New York Times

Germany's Coalition Drama Nears a Climax ; Social Democrats Face Possible Mutiny as Pact Put to Membership Vote

Article excerpt

Even in a nation used to political theater before dueling parties reach consensus, patience is wearing perilously thin with the struggles of the Social Democrats and conservatives.

More than two months after she triumphed in national elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel still has no new government. Even in a nation used to political theater before dueling parties reach consensus, patience is wearing perilously thin.

Ms. Merkel, her conservative allies in Bavaria and the center- left Social Democratic Party have set a target of midweek to finally negotiate a so-called grand coalition, because it would involve Germany's two strongest political parties.

As if to emphasize the need to wrap up negotiations, Ms. Merkel dressed accordingly for a big speech on Friday: a black pantsuit, the color of her conservative party, with a red shirt underneath.

Her optimism belies a big risk. The Social Democrats' leaders have promised that their entire party membership of some 470,000 will vote on the coalition agreement -- and there are strong signs that they could break with Germany's post-1945 practice of putting stability and the state ahead of political emotion, and reject it.

"Best of greetings from the rank and file," Der Spiegel, the newsmagazine, emblazoned on its cover on Sunday, showing the Social Democrats' chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, sitting on a red armchair marked S.P.D. -- for Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands -- as a saw from underneath completed a circle that would sink him.

Ms. Merkel, in a green jacket and black pants, stands in the background. In Germany's color-coded politics, Der Spiegel was signaling that if Mr. Gabriel's strategy failed, she would have to turn to the Greens to form a government, a process that would involve more weeks of negotiation and uncertainty.

It is not so much the policy details that might foil a center- right/center-left partnership but the bad mood emerging as the Social Democrats hold party meetings across the country to debate the new coalition.

It has been clear for weeks, for example, that to secure agreement, Ms. Merkel will have to concede on a national hourly minimum wage, probably of 8.50 euros, or about $11.50. The Social Democrats, in turn, will not get any tax increases. Ms. Merkel and her Christian Democrats point to record tax income and the highest number ever of Germans who are employed, just over 42 million, to insist that no new taxes are needed.

These and other smaller quarrels -- over pensions for nonworking mothers and a ban on dual citizenship for young Turks born in Germany -- fade against the main problem: the lopsided power relationship between the would-be government partners.

For the Sept. 22 elections, the Christian Democrats built their campaign solely around Ms. Merkel, and won big, taking 41.7 percent of the overall vote, and 236 of 299 directly elected constituency seats (against just 58 for the Social Democrats), but ending five seats short of an absolute parliamentary majority.

The Social Democrats got just 25.6 percent of the vote, but accepted negotiations to govern with Ms. …

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