BERLIN Germany's Social Democrats began a do-or-die campaign on Thursday to persuade nearly half a million grassroots members, many skeptical about governing with conservative Angela Merkel again, to back their "grand coalition" in a ballot.
Germany has already waited two months since the election for a new government. After Merkel and the SPD finally agreed the terms of an alliance, it must now wait until mid-December while the SPD seeks endorsement in an unprecedented poll of members.
More than 474,000 card-carrying members will receive postal ballots within days asking whether they agree to the terms set out in a 185-page document signed by Merkel, her Bavarian ally Horst Seehofer and SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel on Wednesday.
Since the SPD reluctantly agreed, after they were thrashed by Merkel in September's election, to discuss repeating their 2005-2009 right-left coalition, Gabriel has been promising not to compromise the ideals of the 150-year-old party.
In Hofheim in western Germany, at the first of more than 130 rallies of party members due in the coming weeks, Gabriel gave an upbeat, persuasive speech, stressing the SPD's success in pushing through Germany's first nationwide minimum wage and pledging that the deal would bring real improvements.
"This is not a question of how the SPD should proceed, it is a question of how Germany is doing... and what we can do for people," he said. He warned supporters not to obsess about the party's future or appear weak or reluctant to govern.
"I was in two minds before. Now I will vote yes," said one delegate after hearing Gabriel's speech.
SPD luminaries who initially voiced doubts, blaming historic defeats in 2005 and 2009 on the party forgetting its working-class roots, have since closed ranks around Gabriel, including powerful North Rhine-Westphalia state premier Hannelore Kraft.
The SPD's traditionally leftist youth wing (Jusos)seemed to have come round too, although a few protested in Hofheim.
Jusos leader Sachsa Vogt conceded many members were still "very skeptical" but said he was confident they would read the deal and see it contained "clear improvements" for people.
Beside the 8.50 euros per hour minimum wage deal, he cited investment in education and relaxed rules on dual citizenship, which benefit Germany's large, SPD-voting Turkish minority.
The Turkish Community in Germany organization has branded the new rules a 'bitter disappointment' however, as they will only allow youngsters born in Germany to hold both passports, and not older generations living for decades in the country.
The group's chairman Kenan Kolat said he and other leading members who are also in the SPD would vote no to the deal.
TICK THE BOX
Eager to avoid looking desperate to return to power, SPD leaders asked Merkel to hold off from announcing her cabinet until after the vote. But satirical magazine Titanic said they were so bent on getting approval that members would have just three boxes to tick: "Yes", "Of course" or "Absolutely!".
If the result announced on December 14 is a "yes", Merkel will quickly announce a cabinet and be sworn in by the Bundestag lower house. The SPD's six ministers may include Gabriel, who was her environment minister in the last "grand coalition" and Frank-Walter Steinmeier may return as SPD foreign minister.
If it is a "no", or participation falls short of the quorum of 20 percent of members, Merkel would seek a coalition with the Greens, now the smallest party in the Bundestag, or else Germany will face another election and more months of instability.
It is hard to tell whether the SPD will get the quorum of about 95,000 members. Pollsters say it is impossible to get a representative snapshot of opinion from such a small sample.
Everhard Holtmann at the Centre for Social Research at the University of Halle-Wittenberg said SPD members knew what the consequences would be and would proceed with caution.
"When they have the ballot in their hands, they'll realize that a 'no' vote would decapitate the party leadership and could lead to the whole party spinning out of control," he said, referring to Gabriel's certain removal if it fails.
There is no shortage of dissenting voices, including Nobel Prize-winning novelist Guenter Grass, a veteran SPD supporter. SPD intellectuals raised a petition with over 9,000 signatures, proclaiming: "If the SPD lacks the courage to lead, it should go into the opposition and renew itself from the ground up."
If they are disappointed, they may flee to the hardline Left Party, which was co-founded by SPD dissidents such as Oskar Lafontaine after SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder launched his business-friendly "Agenda 2010" reforms 10 years ago.
The SPD has dropped its decades-old taboo on partnering the Left and they could theoretically join a coalition from the next election. But the Left still sees an opportunity to poach SPD voters who feel alienated by the latest alliance with Merkel.
Senior Left lawmaker Sahra Wagenknecht said SPD supporters were being "taken for fools" with promises on wages and public investments that had no guaranteed financing from higher taxes.
But beyond Berlin, in town halls and constituencies who get the final word on whether Merkel gets to govern with the SPD, the prospect of more cash for kindergartens and schools and financial help for municipalities carries a lot of weight.
"Seldom has a coalition treaty placed so much emphasis on local politics and its needs," said Norbert Bude, mayor of Moenchengladbach and head of a group of SPD local politicians.
(Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers in Berlin and Hakan Ersen in Hofheim; Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Alison Williams and Gareth Jones)