- POSTED: 04 Oct 2013 20:31
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Twelve days after German elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel started exploratory talks on Friday with her defeated centre-left rivals on whether they can jointly govern Europe's biggest economy.
BERLIN: Twelve days after German elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel started exploratory talks on Friday with her defeated centre-left rivals on whether they can jointly govern Europe's biggest economy.
Although Merkel triumphed at the polls, she fell just five seats short of a majority, kicking off a process of coalition haggling and political poker that, the election losers have warned, could drag on into next year.
On the eve of the talks, Merkel pledged a "fair discussion" and said: "Europe is looking at us and the world is looking at us... We have a shared responsibility to form a stable government."
For the Social Democrats (SPD), the second ballot box bruising in a row has sparked internal debate on whether to again govern in popular Merkel's shadow, as they did in 2005-09, or rebuild the 150-year-old party in opposition.
In Friday's initial talks which kicked off at 1100 GMT, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian allies the CSU each sent seven political big guns to jointly face off with seven SPD chieftains.
None of the delegates spoke as they headed into the crucial talks that were expected to take up much of the afternoon.
Should Merkel's conservatives and the SPD fail to agree on another left-right "grand coalition", Merkel has a potential Plan B -- to ask the left-leaning and ecologist Greens to be her junior partners.
Senior CDU figures have stressed to the Greens that they see them as a "real alternative" and not just playing them against the SPD, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily reported.
SPD party chief Sigmar Gabriel warned against "tactical manoeuvring and wilfully protracting negotiations".
Both sides have stressed the initial talks are about policies, not trading ministerial posts.
Among the SPD's key campaign demands were higher taxes for the rich, a national minimum wage, a ceiling on rental increases, and a women's quota in boardrooms.
A confident CDU/CSU drew a red line this week, promising "no tax increases", a pledge reiterated Thursday by Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
SPD to extract high price
Despite a heavy poll defeat, SPD leaders have displayed swagger in their new kingmaker role, warning they are not scared of opposition and threatening to extract a high price if they help Merkel to a third term.
But bravado aside, there is nonetheless some soul-searching going on.
Jumping back into bed with the CDU would give SPD leaders another stab at power and several ministerial posts, but also anger many rank-and-file supporters who would find such an alliance humiliating and damaging.
The party's 470,000 members would get to vote on any possible grand coalition deal, and a 'no' vote would likely force the SPD leadership to quit.
Pollster Manfred Guellner of the Forsa Institute said the SPD will have little choice but to accept a coalition deal, favoured by most Germans, and sell it to their party members.
"They have to decide: do they want to placate their members, of whom there are fewer than 500,000, or win back voters, and here we're talking about 12-20 million if they want to win elections again," Guellner told AFP.
If Merkel's courtship of the SPD nonetheless fails to lead to another loveless marriage, the CDU would have to woo an even more unlikely partner, the Greens.
A conservative alliance would have long seemed unthinkable with the Greens, whose first generation of hippies and peaceniks entered parliament handing out sunflowers.
But in the three decades since, Merkel has adopted the Greens' core demand of phasing out nuclear power, while the Greens have drawn many urban middle-class voters.
The Greens outgoing parliamentary leader Renate Kuenast said her party would enter talks next Thursday in an "open-minded and professional" spirit, despite strong doubts both sides would see eye to eye on Germany's "green modernisation".
Whatever the overlapping talks yield, Merkel will be able to lead a caretaker government until she can build a new majority -- for how long is not defined by the German constitution.