German SPD members vote to join Merkel despite misgivings

Sat Dec 14, 2013 10:38am EST
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By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Social Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining a "grand coalition" with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives on Saturday, clearing the way for a new right-left government that will take office on Tuesday.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won the September 22 election but fell short of a majority. They needed a partner and spent much of the last three months negotiating a coalition deal with the arch rival SPD, which came a distant second.

A "no" vote could have plunged Germany into crisis and complicated European Union efforts for a banking union reform that would see the European Central bank police the sector with a new agency to shut down weak lenders.

A "no" vote would have also forced Social Democrats (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel and his deputies to resign. Despite losing the election, they lobbied hard to win over skeptical members after getting much of their campaign program incorporated into the coalition agreement.

The SPD said 76 percent of its grassroots members who took part in the unprecedented postal ballot voted to join forces with the conservatives despite initial misgivings. The SPD said 256,643 voted "yes" while 80,921 voted "no". Some 32,000 ballots were invalid.

"We're not only the oldest party in Germany but we're also the most modern party - the party of mass participation," Gabriel told some 400 cheering SPD volunteers who had spent the day counting some 369,680 ballots in a cold Berlin warehouse.

"We've set new standards," added Gabriel, who managed to turn September's electoral defeat into a rallying point for the SPD with the referendum gamble. "We don't just talk about grassroots democracy. We live it. I haven't been as proud of my party in a long time."

LESS PLIANT?   Continued...

Volunteers of the Social Democratic Party count the ballots of the "Member Vote" for a new "grand coalition" between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Berlin, December 14, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch