FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2018 file photo Martin Schulz, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, SPD, attends a party meeting in Mainz, Germany. Leaders of Germany’s Social Democrats are making their final push to try and convince party members to approve opening talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives on forming a new government. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP, file)

Germany's Social Democrats consider opening govt talks
David Rising (Associated Press) - January 21, 2018 - 5:41am

BERLIN — The leaders of Germany's Social Democrats made a final push yesterday to try and convince party members to approve opening talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives on forming a new coalition government, saying it was the best option left on the table.

The center-left party, which has governed with Merkel since 2013, was battered in September's election, falling to a post-war low of 20.5 percent support. Leader Martin Schulz had vowed not to enter another coalition, saying his party would regroup in opposition.

But he reconsidered after Merkel's attempts to form a coalition with two smaller parties failed.

Now it's up to a party vote in Bonn on Sunday whether to open negotiations, based upon a 28-page agreement on issues hashed out a week ago between the Social Democrats, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, and her Bavarian-only sister Christian Social Union.

Schulz and other leaders face firm resistance, led by the party's youth wing, driven by fears that concessions needed to form another so-called grand coalition of the country's biggest parties will further alienate the Social Democrats' base and lead to a further erosion of support. Many have also expressed concerns that if a coalition is formed, that would leave the anti-migrant nationalist Alternative for Germany the country's largest opposition party.

Even if negotiations are approved, party members still need to also sign off on whatever coalition agreement is concluded.

But if they vote against negotiations, that leaves only the possibilities that Merkel will form a minority government — which she has indicated she doesn't want — or a new election.

Should it come to another election, the latest polls suggest the results would be very similar to those in September — with the Social Democrats possibly faring even a little worse — creating the same situation again.

Senior Social Democratic lawmaker Andrea Nahles, told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper she was confident coalition negotiations would be approved, while warning the party would be put on the defensive in any new election campaign.

"Please consider what consequences a failure of this government option will have," she said. "New elections are fraught with many risks and side effects... Some believe that the Social Democrats can only renew itself in opposition but that is a fallacy."

Right now, it's thought that about a third of the delegates voting Sunday are against opening negotiations with Merkel, a third are for, while a third are undecided.

Complicating matters, two of the biggest voting blocs, North Rhine-Westphalia and Hesse, are considering only voting for opening negotiations on the condition that Schulz push for more concessions on labor, health and migration policies with Merkel's conservatives, according to a report in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

The Union bloc, however, has indicated it will not agree to any changes to the document already negotiated.

Deputy party leader Olaf Scholz, mayor of the city-state of Hamburg, urged party members to vote for opening formal negotiations and break the political deadlock in Germany, saying Europe was watching.

"The decision of this party congress is important for Germany, but affects things far beyond our border," he told the dpa news agency.

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