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Germany: Angela Merkel's conservatives and SPD open grand coalition talks

Politics | 26.01.2018

Germany's two largest parties have formally launched talks to form a new government after September's elections. Party leaders were upbeat about the prospect of a grand coalition in the run-up to the talks.

Formal coalition talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU); their sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU); and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) started on Friday.

The talks are aimed at forming what is commonly referred to as a grand coalition, which would bring together Germany's two largest parties to form a government.

How we got here

Despite getting the go-ahead to move forward on formal coalition talks, the SPD's youth wing has vehemently lobbied for the center-left party to ditch a "grand coalition"

Party leaders upbeat

Merkel was optimistic about the talks, saying: "People expect us to move towards forming a government, and that's why I'm very optimistic and very determined in these discussions that we reach a result and I believe that is achievable in a relatively manageable time frame."

SPD leader Martin Schulz said forming a stable government was pivotal for the country's success: "Given the challenges from China and the US, the EU needs a strong, pro-European Germany."

Horst Seehofer, who leads the CSU, was upbeat ahead of the talks, saying: "We will do everything in our power today and in the coming weeks to arrive at a good result."

A history of Germany's coalition governments
CDU/CSU - FDP - DP (1949-1957)

The first democratic government to rule West Germany since the end of World War II saw Christian Democratic Union leader Konrad Adenauer form a governing coalition with the Free Democrats and the German Party (a now-defunct national conservative party). When Adenauer's conservatives won re-election four years later, he once again turned to the same coalition partners.

A history of Germany's coalition governments
CDU/CSU - FDP (1961-1966)

After four years of ruling West Germany on their own between 1957 and 1961, the conservative Union lost their majority in the Bundestag and were forced to enter into coalition with the Free Democrats again. Adenauer resigned in 1963 for his part in the so-called "Spiegel" scandal. His Minister of Economic Affairs Ludwig Erhard (left) was elected by parliament to take over

A history of Germany's coalition governments
CDU/CSU - SPD (1966-1969)

The first ever "grand coalition" was not the product of an election. Ludwig Erhart was re-elected in 1965 and continued to rule alongside the FDP. However, the following year the Free Democrats left the government over budget disputes. Erhart also resigned and Kurt Kiesinger (right) was chosen to take over. With the FDP out, he governed with the Social Democrats, led by Willy Brandt (left).

A history of Germany's coalition governments
SPD - FDP (1969-1982)

Willy Brandt became Germany's first Social Democratic chancellor in the post-war period. Despite winning fewer votes than the CDU/CSU, Brandt struck a deal with the FDP to give them a narrow majority in the Bundestag. It wouldn't be the last time the liberals would be called out for a perceived lack of loyalty. In 1974, Brandt was replaced by Helmut Schimdt, who went on to win two more elections.

A history of Germany's coalition governments
CDU/CSU - FDP (1982-1998)

The 13-year friendship between the SPD and FDP ended in 1980 as the two parties' differing ideologies became irreconcilable. The liberals again switched sides that year, dropping out of the coalition and seeking a deal with the conservatives. That caused the SPD-led government to collapse and a reborn CDU/CSU-FDP coalition formed under the leadership of Helmut Kohl (pictured).

A history of Germany's coalition governments
CDU - DSU - Democratic Awakening (1990)

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany held its first ever elections. The Christian Democrats under Lothar de Maiziere took over 40 percent of the vote. They went into coalition with two small parties: German Social Union and Democratic Awakening, whose members included one Angela Merkel. In October that year, the government signed the reunification treaty with West Germany.

A history of Germany's coalition governments
SPD - Green Party (1998-2005)

In 2002, Helmut Kohl's 16-year rule came to an end and the Social Democrats under Gerhard Schröder returned to power. The SPD formed a coalition with the Green party, who became a governing party less than 20 years after being founded. Unlike under Brandt, the SPD now led a left-wing government, rather than a center-left coalition. The SPD-Green party coalition remained in power until 2005.

A history of Germany's coalition governments
CDU/CSU - SPD (2005-2009)

"Grand coalitions" do not come easily. When the first exit polls came in, both Schröder (right) and Angela Merkel (left) declared themselves the winner. In the end, Merkel's conservatives defeated the SPD by just 1 percent. Germany's two largest parties agreed to form the country's second-ever grand coalition.

A history of Germany's coalition governments
CDU/CSU - FDP (2009-2013)

The "grand coalition" experiment ended in 2009, after the SPD picked up a disappointing 23 percent in the federal elections. The Free Democrats, by contrast, gained almost 5 percent to give them over 14 percent of the vote. Merkel and the FDP's Guido Westerwelle (left) formed a coalition with relative ease. It was, after all, Germany's 11th CDU/CSU-FDP government.

A history of Germany's coalition governments
CDU/CSU - SPD (2013-?)

After taking more than 40 percent of the vote, Merkel's conservatives probably weren't expecting to rule with the SPD. But with her old allies the FDP failing to meet the 5 percent threshold to enter the Bundestag, options were limited. Merkel called on the SPD to join her and "take on the responsibility to build a stable government." She'd be making the same speech again four years later.

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What is a grand coalition?

A governing coalition between a parliament's two largest parties. In Germany's case, it means a coalition between the CDU/CSU and SPD.

Have there been previous grand coalitions? 

In short, yes. The previous government was the third "grand coalition" since Germany adopted its current political system. Germany also witnessed "grand coalitions" in the 1960s and 2000s.

Read more: The major sticking points in Germany's coalition talks

If the CDU/CSU and SPD form a government, what parties will form the opposition?

Last year's elections witnessed the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) become the third-largest party in parliament. They would become the largest opposition party if a "grand coalition" government is formed. The Left Party, parliament's fifth-largest party, would also play a key opposition role to a Merkel-led government.

What happens next?

The talks are largely viewed as Merkel's last chance to form a stable government. If talks fail to produce a governing coalition, the CDU could try for a minority government, although fresh elections would be the most likely outcome. However, if she manages to pull together a grand coalition, then it's on to governing Europe's largest economy.

Read more: Germany's coalition talks: What happens next?

The many faces of Angela Merkel
The 'Merkel diamond'

Merkel has become known for using the same hand gesture at public appearances and in front of the camera, putting her fingertips together to form what some call the Merkel-rhombus – or in German, the "Merkel-Raute." If she has done so consciously or as a routine gesture out of habit is a question that have contemporary critics and journalists puzzled. Just what is she trying to say with it?

The many faces of Angela Merkel
A European politician

The German chancellor is known for her commanding and engaged appearance, often appearing quite somber, especially in Europe. Though she has been known to crack a smile at the right time, here, at the recent European leaders summit in Bratislava, she was more composed. To her left is Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke and to her right, the Prime Minster of Belgium, Charles Michel.

The many faces of Angela Merkel
Selfie with the chancellor

Merkel has come into the spotlight for her response to last year's influx of refugees.. Questions about her response to the crisis can be answered when elements of her personal life are considered, as Rinke does in his book. She frequently visits schools and refugee shelters and while doing so, takes time out for selfies, as here in 2015 with Syrian asylum applicant Anas Modamani in Berlin.

The many faces of Angela Merkel
A juggler in the coalition

As chancellor and head of the CDU party, Merkel faces a bit of difficulty in remaining considerate with some of her working partners. She does not respond with the huffiness her SPD party colleague Sigmar Gabriel is known for. Against attacks by the head of CSU Bavaria, the "archetypical Bavarian man," Horst Seehofer, she responds with cool objectivity.

The many faces of Angela Merkel
Curious about the digital age

For trained physicist Angela Merkel, the world of the internet and digital media is said to be relatively foreign, although her team does now have an Instagram account, which is fed by her official photographer. Still, that didn't stop her from grabbing the ear of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at a lunch meeting at the UN in 2015.

The many faces of Angela Merkel
The preacher's daughter

The daughter of a Protestant minister, Merkel's values are said by Rinke to have been shaped by her Christian upbringing. In 2016, she was given a private audience with Pope Francis I at the Vatican, where the two exchanged words on their favorite books.

The many faces of Angela Merkel
A toast to friendly political relations

Merkel is not known to let it all hang out and, though rare due to her full schedule, celebrations are done in style. In 2013, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Élysee agreement between Germany and France, Merkel invited the entire parliament to toast the two countries' friendly relations over champagne.

The many faces of Angela Merkel
A private chancellor

The chancellor gets only a few free vacation moments each year and even when on holiday, as here in Poland, she is not free from the prying eyes of the public. Her husband, Joachim Sauer, also pictured here, is rarely in the spotlight.

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ls/rc (dpa, AFP, Reuters)