* German centre left votes to back grand coalition
* Some 76 percent of SPD members approve despite misgivings
* New Merkel government to take office on Tuesday
By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, Dec 14 Germany's Social Democrats voted
overwhelmingly in favour 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
Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister
party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won the Sept. 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 sceptical members
after getting much of their campaign programme 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
"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."
However, the SPD, still struggling to overcome the steep
drop in support from the 2005-09 "grand coalition" under Merkel,
could prove to be less pliant junior partners this time around.
Thanks to what analysts called a clever strategic move to
ask grassroots members to vote on the coalition, the SPD forced
Merkel to accept many of the SPD's leftist policies even though
the conservatives scored 41.5 percent of the vote in September
compared to 25.7 for the SPD.
Conservative leaders had already approved the deal and
Merkel's deputy in the CDU, Hermann Groehe, said the
conservatives were "delighted" by the results of the vote.
"We're pleased that the new government can get to work," he
The leaders of the three parties will announce the 15
members of the cabinet on Sunday, with the SPD getting six of
SPD sources said Gabriel would be vice chancellor and
economy minister. Wolfgang Schaeuble will remain finance
minister but other key changes are expected.
On Saturday speculation swept Berlin that Ursula von der
Leyen, an ambitious potential heir to Merkel, would become
defence minister or interior minister after serving previously
as labour minister and family minister.
Despite her new government having a four-fifths majority in
parliament, Merkel's third four-year term could be more
difficult and more domestically focused than her first two terms
that were heavily shaped by the global financial crisis and
turmoil in the euro zone.
The coalition agreement is due to be signed on Monday and
Merkel's new government could be sworn into office on Tuesday.