Germany's Schroeder urges coalition talks without 'preconditions'
Merkel wins endorsement of party, allies
BERLIN -- Conservative challenger Angela Merkel won overwhelming backing from her party yesterday ahead of talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats about a coalition government. Schroeder, apparently showing new flexibility, said all sides should drop ''preconditions."
German voters ousted Schroeder's government Sunday but didn't give Merkel a parliamentary majority, leaving Europe's largest economy -- beset by high unemployment, sluggish growth, and budget deficits -- rudderless.
Both Schroeder and Merkel claim a mandate to be the next chancellor, a dispute to be settled in coalition talks beginning tomorrow among Germany's political parties. But the outcome is far from clear: One could win, or both could conceivably be overlooked by their own parties.
Merkel was confirmed as leader of her parliamentary group by 219 of 222 deputies from her Christian Democrats and their allies, the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union. She got the endorsement despite disappointment over her party's showing Sunday.
''Today's vote underlined that as the strongest bloc in parliament, it is up to us to build a government," Merkel said. ''We are faced with a challenge that is difficult, but solvable."
The Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union together barely finished first, with 35.2 percent, compared with 34.3 percent for the Social Democrats. Polls before the election had shown them leading by up to 20 points.
Schroeder called for coalition talks without ''any form of preconditions" to end Germany's political confusion. He didn't repeat his earlier demand that the Social Democrats would enter the government only with him as chancellor.
''It's about exploratory talks -- a phase in which we must talk to one another about how one will bring about a stable government, which we need at this time," Schroeder said at a news conference. ''Any form of precondition would, as I see it, be inappropriate." As for who would hold posts in such a government, he said ''the election clearly had a personnel component," but added it was ''far too early to give a concrete answer."
Several top politicians on the left and the right said a so-called grand coalition between the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats would be the way to form a stable government. But they disagreed on Merkel's and Schroeder's clashing claims to become chancellor.
''The needle is oscillating more toward a grand coalition under the leadership of Schroeder," Social Democratic Interior Minister Otto Schily said in an interview with Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Guenther Beckstein, interior minister in the state of Bavaria and a member of the Christian Social Union, said, ''For me, the given result must be a grand coalition under the leadership of Mrs. Merkel."
Yet Merkel's deputy as parliamentary leader, Wolfgang Schaueble, appeared to lean toward the so-called Jamaica coalition of right-wing Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, plus the environmentalist Greens, who line up left of center.
Another possibility is an all-left coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and the New Left Party, made up of former Social Democrats unhappy with Schroeder's pro-business reforms and former East German communists.