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Politics

'Grand coalition' returns to Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her new coalition partners, the Social Democrats, have formally signed a coalition agreement some ten weeks after elections. The new ministers are set to be sworn in Tuesday.

New German cabinet named

Merkel was joined by her new Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel from the Social Democrats and the head of the sister party to her Christian Democrats, Horst Seehofer of the CSU, at the signing of the coalition deal on Monday in Berlin.

Although the parties had previously agreed in principle to working together as a coalition, it still needed the formal backing from all three parties. This was secured when the SPD approved the coalition over the weekend after asking its 470,000-member base to vote on the deal.

On Monday, Merkel took the stage first to say a few words about the agreement and invoked Germany's first chancellor, CDU politician Konrad Adenauer.

"If two people always have the same opinion, then neither one is good for much," she said, referring to the long negotiations with the SPD.

Gabriel took the stage next, and cracked a joke right off the bat that was indicative of the friendly and familiar mood at the signing ceremony – a contrast to some of the tough talk that came during the weeks-long coalition talks.

"Chancellor Merkel, you just referred to Adenauer – we don’t have two people with the same opinion here," he said, which got a chuckle from the crowd.

He ended his brief speech on a comical note as well, quoting former SPD chancellor Willy Brandt: "Politics is all about compromise. But compromises with the Social Democrats are the best ones."

SPD gains key posts

Gabriel had every reason to be in a good mood at the signing ceremony: despite coming in a distant second to Merkel's CDU in the polls, his party was awarded six of the fifteen total ministry posts (the CDU also has six, while the CSU has three). He was able to gain broad support from the party base to ensure the coalition deal passed the internal party vote. One major concession the SPD won from the CDU was a nation-wide minimum wage, starting in 2015.

Gabriel himself becomes Merkel's vice chancellor and has also been given the task of running a new 'super' ministry that combines the economy and energy portfolios and will help oversee Germany's transition to renewable energy sources.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier - previously the leader of the opposition in parliament - is set to become the new foreign minister, a post he held from 2005 until 2009 during the last Merkel-led grand coalition. His previous role as head of the party's parliamentary group will go to his chief whip, Thomas Oppermann.

Strong appointments from Merkel

Some of Merkel's closest party allies have come out of the negotiations with powerful positions. Peter Altmaier, who previously headed the environment ministry, will serve as Merkel's chief of staff. Thomas de Maiziere moves from his role as defense minister to the interior ministry, a post he held previously under Merkel.

Germany's first woman defense minister

De Maiziere's replacement is one of the more interesting aspects of the new cabinet: Ursula von der Leyen is to become Germany's first female defense minister. Political commentators say that this will give her the chance to position herself as a candidate to succeed Merkel. Since the official nomination on Sunday, von der Leyen has taken to German public television to say how surprised she was at the nomination and touting her ability to quickly wrap her head around a new topic areas - a likely reference to her lack of expereince in defense matters.

The CSU came away from the negotiations with three lower-level ministry nominations. Hans-Peter Friedrich will head the ministry of agriculture, relinquishing his current post as minister of the interior. Seehofer named his party's secretary general, Alexander Dobrindt, as transportation and digital infrastructure minister. Bavarian politician Gerd Müller is to become the minister of development.

The return of the grand coalition

With the coalition deal signed, all that is left to do to complete Germany's transfer of power is to swear in the new ministers and hold a formal vote in parliament to approve Merkel as chancellor. These tasks are scheduled for Tuesday.

The coalition between the CDU, its Bavarian sister-party the CSU, and the SPD marks the third time since World War II that a grand coalition of the country's two biggest parties has governed. The most recent grand coalition was from 2005-2009. In the 2009 elections, Merkel and the CDU opted to form a government with the Free Democrats, who did not garner enough votes to gain representation in parliament during the elections in September.

The current grand coalition represents a majority of about 80 percent in the Bundestag.

mz/ph (dpa, AFP, AP)

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