Merkel wins deal to form coalition government in Germany

BERLIN — Leaders of Germany’s Social Democrats said they have reached a deal with Angela Merkel’s conservatives on forming a coalition government, ending the chancellor’s lengthy, tortuous search for a new coalition partner.

The deal was announced after about 18 hours of talks aimed at averting a new election in which Merkel’s weakened Christian Democratic Union would suffer the same drubbing as her last effort in September. Her liberal open-door refugee policy was partly blamed for handing her party its worst result in nearly 70 years.

Senior SPD officials expressed confidence that the deal would get through the party’s top body on Monday, with the party’s 577 local branches due to vote. If the SPD secures approval on that level, the new cabinet will be announced Tuesday morning.

“This can only be a first step,” SPD chairman Martin Schulz told a news conference.

“The depth of the disagreements is very real, but I want to thank all of the participants for their calm and detailed work.”

He described the deal as an “ambitious accord that can be delivered on.”

Key elements of the agreement announced Sunday would give the SPD a stronger say over the pensions and welfare systems, and stronger oversight of the European Union institutions in Strasbourg, France.

Schulz, Merkel and Christian Social Union leader Horst Seehofer were to hold talks Sunday night to clarify aspects of the deal, a SPD official said.

Schulz flew to talks at the start of the weekend with Seehofer and Bavarian Christian Social Union leader Horst Seehofer, both of whom had ruled out cooperating with the Social Democrats for a third time. In an attempt to shore up support for the coalition deal, Seehofer later said he was open to broadening talks in talks with his CSU party’s local branches.

Senior SPD officials — including Schulz, former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel and the party’s general secretary — had met twice Friday to offer “support” for the idea of joining Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the Free Democrats in a “grand coalition.” That option would require the support of Merkel’s junior partners in the last “grand coalition,” the Social Democrats’ Greens.

Wolfgang Schweitzer, general secretary of the SPD’s international section, said the SPD and the Greens will now seek to persuade the smaller Green party to join the new government. The Green party leader, Svenja Schulze, told the newspaper Rheinische Post she would not sign a coalition agreement if CSU leaders’ positions did not change.

Schulz had led a party revolt against any return to an alliance with Merkel’s CDU/CSU — noting it was impossible to govern “with a single head.”

But the SPD negotiators reportedly sensed Merkel is in a weaker position, as she looked likely to have to call a new election following an absolute parliamentary majority being stripped away after Merkel’s party failed to win a majority in the east German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on Sunday.

Markus Soeder, state premier of the large state of North Rhine-Westphalia, suggested Saturday that he might return to the coalition talks as it makes little sense to go into a new election, which could strip him of authority as leader of Germany’s largest state.

That is a factor that might help overcome the SPD leaders’ internal differences over a return to the grand coalition.

The possibility of an SPD-CSU coalition dominated a run-up to Germany’s Christmas holidays, when Merkel’s hardline interior minister, Horst Seehofer, planned to fly to Vienna for a meeting of the “Visegrad” group of central European leaders.

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