Social Democrats join grand coalition, Germany's political limbo nears end

On Saturday, Germany's Social Democrats voted to approve a 'grand coalition' encompassing both left and right under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Parliament will re-elect Merkel on Tuesday.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel (c.), applauds supporters as he arrives to announce the result of the SPD member vote for a new 'grand coalition' between their party and the Christian Democratic Union in Berlin December 14, 2013.

Germany's main center-left party cleared the way on Saturday for Angela Merkel to start her third term as chancellor, announcing that its members had voted by a large majority to join the conservative leader in government.

The ballot of the Social Democrats' nearly 475,000 members capped post-World War II Germany's longest effort to form a government. It set the stage for Parliament to re-elect Merkel on Tuesday — ending nearly three months of post-election political limbo in Europe's biggest economy.

Some 76 percent of members who took part approved a deal to form a "grand coalition" government of right and left under Merkel and about 24 percent voted against.

"What we want to do now is to show the 24 percent over the next four years that the 76 percent were right," party leader Sigmar Gabriel said. He added that the party had shown a great "sense of responsibility" to the country.

Merkel's conservatives won Sept. 22 elections but fell short of a majority and saw their previous pro-business coalition partners lose their parliamentary seats — forcing them to reach across the aisle for new allies.

The Social Democrats already served as Merkel's junior partners once, between 2005 and 2009 in her first term, and emerged weakened from the experience. In September, they finished a distant second to Merkel's Union bloc.

In an effort to counter members' strong initial resistance to working again with their traditional rivals, Gabriel took what appeared the risky move of pledging an unprecedented ballot of the party's full membership on any coalition deal.

Gabriel and other leaders toured Germany over recent weeks to sell to members the deal Social Democrats and conservatives hammered out last month.

It featured key center-left demands including the introduction of Germany's first mandatory national minimum wage, at 8.50 euros ($11.65), per hour and a change to the pension system that will allow some longtime workers to retire at 63 on full pensions.

However, Germany's position in Europe's debt crisis will remain largely unchanged and Merkel's conservatives refused to raise taxes for high earners.

A conference of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union approved the coalition deal on Monday.

Its general secretary, Hermann Groehe, welcomed the result of the Social Democrats' ballot. "We are glad that our work together in government can now begin quickly," he said.

The new government will have an overwhelming parliamentary majority. It holds 504 of the 631 seats in the lower house; the rest are held by the left-leaning Greens and the hard-line Left Party.

The coalition partners haven't yet announced who will get what Cabinet posts.

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