Merkel to head Germany's government

Conservative leader will form coalition with former chancellor's Social Democrats.

merkel 298 AP (photo credit: AP)
merkel 298 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Conservative leader Angela Merkel said Monday she had reached a "good and fair" deal that will make her Germany's first female chancellor in a power-sharing agreement with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats. The chairman of Schroeder's party, Franz Muentefering, said that his side was committed to a stable government that could last the entire four years of parliament's term. He said Schroeder would participate in coalition talks, starting next Monday, but there was no decision on whether he might play a role in the new government after losing his seven-year hold on the chancellery. The preliminary deal was a "good basis" for coalition talks to finish up important details such as who would occupy what Cabinet posts - the bulk of which will go to his party, Muentefering said. Both leaders vowed to tackle Germany's economic problems, which include high unemployment and sluggish growth. Merkel said the parties had agreed "there is no alternative to a reform course" for Germany, addressing fears that such a government will be so divided it will be unable to take tough and potentially unpopular action to cut the costs of the welfare state to businesses. Muentefering said "fighting unemployment" would be the new government's top task, and that both sides had to work together. "Such a coalition can be successful if both partners ... know they are responsible not just for the ministries they hold but for the entire spectrum of policy," he said. Merkel smiled broadly at her achievement but didn't exult at apparently reaching the top job, 16 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall freed her to launch a political career. "I feel good, but I have a lot of work ahead of me," she said, referring to the coalition negotiations that will hammer out the details. The talks should be completed by Nov. 12, she said, and she expressed confidence that her Christian Democratic Union would reach an agreement with the Social Democrats on a common foreign policy. As for relations with Turkey - the Social Democrats favor EU membership, Merkel opposes it - she gave a faint smile and simply noted that membership negotiations have already begun. "We'll see," she said. She said good relations with the United States - another possible sticking point with Schroeder's party - would be a priority. "I am convinced that good trans-Atlantic relations are an important task and that they are in the German interest," she said. The agreement would end a three-week standoff that began when voters ousted Schroeder's ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens on Sept. 18 but failed to give a majority to Merkel's preferred center-right coalition. That forced the Social Democrats and her Christian Democrats to seek a power-sharing deal across the left-right divide. Merkel forced Schroeder to drop his demand to be chancellor, saying that as head of the party with the largest number of seats, the job belonged to her. She would be the first woman to lead Germany and the first person from the formerly communist east to hold the job. But she would see her ability to push through her agenda to reform the economy limited by sharing extensive power with her labor-backed former opponents, the Social Democrats. Under the terms of the agreement, the Social Democrats would head the foreign, finance, labor, justice, health, transport, environment and development ministries. Merkel's Christian Democrats and their Bavaria-only allies, the Christian Social Union, would get the defense, interior, agriculture, families and education portfolios. The CSU leader, Edmund Stoiber, would become economy minister. Other than that, officials did not say who would occupy which ministerial post. Parliament must convene by Oct. 18 but is not obliged to vote immediately on a new chancellor if coalition talks are still ongoing. Merkel's forces have 226 votes in the 614-seat parliament, while the Social Democrats have 222. A coalition needs 308 seats for a majority. Many Social Democrats had indicated that they would find it hard to support Merkel without gaining an exceptionally favorable coalition deal in return. The prolonged negotiations have delayed action on Germany's economic woes. Schroeder's party fought its way to a better-than-expected election result with pledges to protect the welfare state and workers' rights, and Muentefering on Monday renewed their insistence that a new government must combine "renewal and social justice."