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Germany inches closer to new, old government

BERLIN >> Germany inched toward a new government Friday, as leaders from the center-left Social Democrats, the previous partners of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc, agreed to sit down next week for exploratory talks on resuming the arrangement.

Andrea Nahles, parliamentary whip for the Social Democrats, said her party’s leadership would meet Wednesday with its counterparts from Merkel’s conservatives to begin the process that a majority of Germans, according to recent opinion polls, hope will lead to a fourth chancellorship for Merkel. The two groups governed together from 2005 to 2009, and again from 2013 until this year.

The Social Democrats’ party conference, a three-day gathering that opened Thursday, voted by hand on the prospect of beginning open-ended talks and approved it by a “large” majority, according to Niels Annen, a senior Social Democrat who counted the votes. No fixed percentage of the vote was given.

“We don’t have to govern at any price, but we also can’t reject governing at any price,” Martin Schulz, the party’s leader, told delegates in a rousing speech Thursday.

“What matters is what we are able to implement,” said Schulz, who was re-elected as the Social Democrats’ party leader with 81 percent of the vote.

The Christian Democrats welcomed the decision and said their leadership would convene Sunday and Monday to discuss their strategy for the talks. The goal, said a party whip, Klaus Schüler, was “to build a stable government for our country. That is our responsibility and that is what the people expect.”

The threat of early elections has forced a change of heart by the Social Democrats, who had announced after the Sept. 24 election that they would not join another Merkel coalition.

That election delivered a difficult result. Schulz’s Social Democrats slipped by 5 percentage points, a performance for which he apologized in his conference speech. Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost even more support — 7 percentage points — but remained the strongest party, with the task of seeking partners to build a government.

The far-right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, was voted into Parliament for the first time, as the third-strongest party, draining support from the two main parties in a significant showing of voter anger over immigration and inequality.

Merkel first tried to build a broad-based coalition with two smaller parties. After that effort collapsed last month, the country’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose responsibility it would be to call new elections, told politicians it was their job, not that of voters, to find a solution, leading Merkel to turn again to her most recent partners.

Last week, the chancellor sat down with Steinmeier, Schulz and the head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of her own Christian Democratic Union, to determine whether they could talk. Schulz insisted that members of his party must decide whether to proceed.

Most Germans would like to see Merkel returned to office, a regular political survey by the polling company Infratest Dimap found, with 56 percent expressing a positive view toward a fourth term for the chancellor. German sentiment has also become more favorable toward another coalition of the country’s two largest parties, after 10 weeks without leadership.

But the Social Democrats are insisting that any new government would have to more clearly bear their own stamp, and to fulfill promises from their election campaign, which focused heavily on social justice issues.

Nahles said her party had identified certain “essential, important issues,” including health care, European policy, affordable housing and increased spending on social welfare programs for seniors.

“But we are not going into talks with a big bundle of red lines,” she told Deutschlandfunk radio today. “Then we could save ourselves the talk altogether.”

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