German Social Democrats Agree to Talks With Embattled Merkel

BERLIN—Germany moved a small step closer to a potential solution to its political crisis on Thursday after the country’s largest opposition party said it would enter talks with Chancellor

Angela Merkel’s

conservatives over forging a new government.

Ms. Merkel’s attempt to form an unprecedented alliance of conservatives, free-market libertarians and environmentalists collapsed in late November, leaving Europe’s largest economy with a caretaker administration more than two months after an election that yielded no clear majority.

On Thursday, delegates from the Social Democratic Party—Ms. Merkel’s junior ruling partner over the past four years, which has been poised for the opposition after a bruising electoral defeat—met in Berlin to debate whether to open talks with Ms. Merkel’s conservative alliance. Together, the two blocs could command a majority of seats in parliament, or the SPD could offer limited support to a minority Merkel government.

It isn’t clear what arrangement will emerge from the talks. “We want to talk open-mindedly and see which solutions we could bring about,” SPD Chairman

Martin Schulz

told the convention. “We don’t have to rule at any price. But we also mustn’t want not to govern at any price. The key is what we can push through.”

The decision to open talks was backed by a clear majority of the roughly 600 delegates and marks an about-turn for the party, which last month rejected governing with Ms. Merkel again. Polls suggest a remake of coalition would be deeply unpopular among grass-roots SPD members, who would have to approve any coalition deal at the end of the talks.

Only 27.9 percent of SPD members support a grand coalition, according to a poll of 5,066 people conducted Nov. 30-Dec. 5 for Spiegel Online. The party is at odds with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats on issues ranging from immigration to security and economic policy.

“We have reached a point where a [grand coalition] can no longer be justified,” said Aljoscha Dalkner, a 24-year-old student from Göttingen and SPD convention delegate. “We need renewal.”

The September election marked a low for the country’s two dominant parties, which both scored their worst scores in decades. With their dwindling share of the votes, the parties have been reduced to working together twice since 2005.

After Ms. Merkel failed to cobble together a disparate four-party coalition of archconservatives, free-marketeers and left-leaning Greens, the country’s president, himself a Social Democrat, put pressure on the SPD to enter talks with Ms. Merkel.

The parties’ leaders are set to meet next week to start preliminary talks. A coalition agreement—or one that would see a minority Merkel government rule with limited SPD support—could take months to emerge. Should the talks collapse or one of the parties reject the final agreement, the outcome would be snap elections some time in 2018.

Many grass-roots SPD members dislike the notion of a renewed alliance with Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, which they think has weakened their party. The SPD has shed almost half its voters since first joining forces with the chancellor 12 years ago.

Others say the party should at least discuss forms of support to prevent snap elections. In reaction to the political instability of the pre-World War II era, Germany’s constitution makes it hard to dissolve parliament and call out-of-schedule elections.

A Merkel-led minority government “would be more unstable, but the grand coalition isn’t good for the SPD,“ said

Gabi Rolland,

an SPD state parliamentarian from southern Germany. Fellow party member

Gerhard Guldner

said a grand coalition would be a lesser evil as it would allow the party to shape policies, but ”we must ensure we don’t get bamboozled like the last time.”

Simon Fink,

professor for political science at the University of Göttingen, said the two blocs would likely agree to a coalition.

“The chancellor has no alternative left,“ he said. “The SPD has a relatively strong hand…and could achieve a lot because nobody really wants early elections.”

Write to Andrea Thomas at

Appeared in the December 8, 2017, print edition as ‘Merkel, Opposition to Talk.’

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