Germany moved a step closer to forming a government after months of political uncertainty yesterday, as the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) voted to begin formal coalition talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.
Around 600 party delegates gathered in Bonn on Sunday for a fraught and at times emotional debate that lasted well into the afternoon.
The final vote was 362 votes for, and 279 against, with one abstention, and followed a thorough recount after the first showing of hands was too close for SPD officials to call.
During a fervid speech before the vote, SPD chairman Martin Schulz urged party delegates to make the right choice between “coalition negotiations or new elections”.
“People across Europe are watching this SPD party congress,” he said. “This is, entirely without a doubt, a key moment in the young history of our party.”
The SPD had previously planned to go into the opposition following its worst election result since Germany became a federal republic in 1949, after its previous coalition with Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.
Delegates made a u-turn last month when exploratory coalition talks collapsed between conservatives, Greens and pro-business Free Democrats, throwing the government into doubt.
Profile | Martin Schulz
Ms Merkel told reporters in Berlin that she was pleased although there were "still many questions to clear up in detail and that will require intensive deliberation".
She said a preliminary deal struck last week between the SPD and CDU would now guide the upcoming formal discussions. Any final deal will still need to be put to a vote by the SPD's delegates.
If coalition talks collapse again, Ms Merkel will have a severe political crisis on her hands. Calling a snap election or forming the first minority government in post-war history would be among her unfavourable options.
Sunday’s vote was originally expected just to be a formality vote given the preliminary deal. But the outcome had become increasingly less predictable in recent days, as the party’s left and youth factions argued SPD policies were being trampled on.
A grassroots rebellion was led against a yes vote by youth leader Kevin Kühnert, a 28-year-old political novice who has been compared to Jeremy Corbyn by German media. Mr Kühnert had argued that the party needed to leave power to revitalise itself after four years as the CDU’s junior partner.
Following the vote, Mr Schulz pledged to negotiate hard for more concessions on labour, health and migration policies.
"We are now starting with the negotiations, and we will come back to all these points," he said, adding that the agreed-upon prerequisites were "no coalition agreement."
Europe's largest economy has been effectively without leadership since a Sept. 24 election, forcing Germany to take a back seat in European and global affairs.
A negative vote would have plunged the chancellor into the most serious crisis of her career in office, prolonging an unprecedented political deadlock and hampering Germany on the global stage.
French President Emmanuel Macron, dependent upon Ms Merkel’s support in driving forward his ambitious plans for EU reform, had spoken out in support of a new grand coalition between the SPD and the CDU, the country's two biggest parties.
In a joint video podcast last night commemorating the Elysée Treaty signed 55 years ago, Mr Macron and Ms Merkel said they planned to strengthen Franco-German cooperation, and would draw up a new bilateral agreement this year on EU and international issues.
"We are doing that in order to bring the people in our countries even closer together. And we do it to give the whole of Europe a new boost, to make it even stronger," Ms Merkel said.
The pair are both scheduled to attend the four-day World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday this week.