- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

BERLIN — Germany’s incoming government was thrown into confusion yesterday as a top conservative leader deserted the planned left-right coalition and the Social Democrats suffered an embarrassing leadership crisis.

It forced Angela Merkel, the conservative who is to be the next chancellor, to go on national television to calm fears that the government would collapse before it had a chance to take office.

“I am fully committed to making a ‘grand coalition’ possible. We will work to make a success of it,” she said.

The latest developments augur poorly for the government of Europe’s biggest economy and send a damaging message to an electorate that had been counting on a stable government after an inconclusive Sept. 18 election.

Earlier Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian state governor, said he would not join the grand coalition as economy minister, reasoning he could better represent his own party’s interests at home rather than in Berlin.

Mr. Stoiber said he made his decision after Franz Muentefering — penciled in as vice-chancellor — announced he was resigning as head of the Social Democrats after losing a party power struggle.

“The political situation has changed. The SPD is no longer so predictable,” Mr. Stoiber said in a terse statement to the press in which he announced he would be replaced by a senior member of his Christian Social Union, Michael Glos.

Mr. Muentefering, viewed as key to holding together the potentially fractious grand coalition, added to the uncertainty over the coalition by saying he may bow out of the new government altogether.

As well as the role of vice-chancellor, he also had been slated to take up the post of labor minister, which would see him charged with slashing Germany’s unemployment rate of more than 11 percent.

Although another a powerful SPD figure said yesterday that Mr. Muentefering was still prepared to join the government, a party spokesman insisted that no final decision had been made.

Mrs. Merkel sought to downplay the impact of the SPD crisis on the coalition, saying as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, she has “lived through worse situations.”

But leading conservatives said that the already daunting task of arranging an improbable pairing of Germany’s two biggest political rivals — last tried in the 1960s — had become incalculably more difficult.

“At the moment, we cannot say whether there will, or will not, be a grand coalition,” CDU Deputy Leader Juergen Ruettgers told public television. “The SPD must now say what it wants.”

The Der Spiegel weekly said in an online editorial that the Social Democrats would struggle to recover from the effective loss within just a few weeks of two pillars of the party, Mr. Muentefering and outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Mr. Muentefering, 65, decided to stand down as chairman after a left-wing maverick, Andrea Nahles, won a vote by the party’s board to become the next general secretary, roundly defeating Mr. Muentefering’s hand-picked candidate.

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