Germany's SPD to decide on talks for new Merkel govt

Leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Martin Schulz, delivers a speech at a party congress of Germany's Social Democrats in Berlin on Thursday. (AFP)
Updated 07 December 2017
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Germany's SPD to decide on talks for new Merkel govt

BERLIN: Germany's centre-left Social Democrats meet from Thursday to decide whether to help Chancellor Angela Merkel end a months-long political stalemate in Europe's biggest economy.
Party chief Martin Schulz will ask the deeply divided SPD to give him the green light for exploratory talks on joining Merkel in another coalition government starting in early 2018.
Another option for Germany's second-biggest party would be to allow Merkel to run a minority government -- though she has so far rejected this as inherently unstable.
For Schulz, a willingness to sound out a power pact with Merkel represents a U-turn after he repeatedly vowed to go into opposition following his party's dismal showing in the Sept. 24 elections.
Schulz, a former European Parliament president, relented after Merkel's talks with two smaller parties collapsed two weeks ago, sparking political uncertainty and raising the unpopular spectre of new elections.
At the three-day SPD congress in Berlin, he will face fierce opposition, especially from the party's youth wing, which bitterly rejects the humiliating option of the SPD again playing second fiddle in a so-called grand coalition.
There will be "disputes and fights", acknowledged Schulz, who is due to stand for re-election as party chief.
But his political future is also at play, with senior SPD member Carsten Schneider warning that if Schulz fails to convince the party to adopt his strategy, then he would "also no longer need to stand for the leadership of the party".
Michael Broening of the SPD-linked Friedrich Ebert Foundation said the Social Democrats "once again find themselves in a Catch-22 situation".
"The party fears new elections, loathes another grand coalition, but still does not want to be seen as obstructionist naysayers shying away from civic responsibility," Broening said.
"That is why their preferred option would be to tolerate a minority government. However, this enthusiasm is neither shared by chancellor Merkel nor the wider German public."
Given the rocky path ahead, Germany is "unlikely to have a new government before spring", predicted the SPD's Olaf Scholz, mayor of the northern city-state of Hamburg.
Schulz — the election loser turned potential kingmaker — has said he is in no rush to reach a deal, and that "for us, nothing is predetermined, nothing is automatic".
He has vowed to extract maximum concessions for his over 150-year-old labour party, including social welfare gains and steps toward greater "solidarity" in Europe.
The SPD broadly supports French President Emmanuel Macron's sweeping vision for EU reform as well as a departure from Berlin's insistence on austerity in crisis-hit economies.
Schulz has said he wants Berlin to assume "a progressive, a more social, a more dynamic policy".
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, another SPD veteran, has also spoken out in favour of EU reform plans such as greater eurozone investment, a common finance minister and the creation of a European Monetary Fund.
Germany had to consider the proposals from a broader perspective than how much they would cost, Gabriel told news weekly Der Spiegel, warning that inaction would be "naive and dangerous for the European project".
Schulz became the SPD's top candidate a year ago when he won 100 percent party support in January and saw SPD poll ratings briefly shoot up some 10 percentage points.
But he met the fate of Merkel's previous challengers, with a campaign -- built on fighting social inequality -- losing steam amid a string of regional poll defeats.
In the September general election, in which the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) protest party siphoned millions of votes from all mainstream parties, the SPD scored just under 21 percent, its worst showing since World War II.
Most members felt that the past four years — in which the SPD was Merkel's junior partner in the unhappy "grand coalition" — had badly wounded party support and morale.
Thousands of members had already defected from the historical working-class champions when former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder slashed back the welfare state in the early 2000s.
Whatever the outcome of any eventual talks with Merkel, it will have to satisfy the SPD party base, because members will ultimately vote to approve or scrap any coalition agreement.


Migrant caravan swells to 5,000, resumes advance toward US

Updated 21 October 2018
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Migrant caravan swells to 5,000, resumes advance toward US

  • The marchers' numbers swelled to about 5,000 overnight and at first light they set out walking toward the Mexican town of Tapachula
  • Migrants cited widespread poverty and gang violence in Honduras as their reasons for joining the caravan

CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico: A growing throng of Central American migrants resumed their advance toward the US border in southern Mexico on Sunday, overwhelming Mexican government attempts to stop them at the border.
Their numbers swelled to about 5,000 overnight and at first light they set out walking toward the Mexican town of Tapachula, 10 abreast in a line stretching approximately a mile (1.5 kilometers).
Several hundred more already had applied for refugee status in Mexico and an estimated 1,500 were still on the Guatemalan side of the Suchiate River, hoping to enter legally.
It was not immediately clear where the additional travelers had materialized from since about 2,000 had been gathered on the Mexican side Saturday night. But people have been joining and leaving the caravan daily, some moving at their own pace and strung out in a series of columns as they moved across Guatemala.
They marched on through Mexico like a ragtag army of the poor, shouting triumphantly slogans like “Si se pudo!” or “Yes, we could!“
As they passed through Mexican villages on the outskirts of Ciudad Hidalgo, they drew applause, cheers and donations of food and clothing from Mexicans.
Maria Teresa Orellana, a resident of the neighborhood of Lorenzo handed out free sandals to the migrants as they passed. “It’s solidarity,” she said. “They’re our brothers.”
In the tropical heat, Besi Jaqueline Lopez of San Pedro Sula carried an improbable stuffed polar bear with a winter cap, the favorite — and only — toy of her two daughters, Victoria 4 and Elisabeth, 3, as they trudged beside her, all covered in sweat.
A business administration graduate, Lopez said she couldn’t find work in Honduras. She wants to reach the USA but would stay in Mexico if she could find work here. “My goal is to find work for a better future for my daughters,” she said. Her husband, David Martinez, said they were tired, but had to push on to reach their goal of making it to the US
Olivin Castellanos, 58, a truck driver and mason from Villanueva, Honduras, said he took a raft across the river after Mexico blocked the bridge. “No one will stop us, only God,” he said. “We knocked down the door and we continue walking.” He wants to reach the US to work. “I can do this,” he said, pointing to the asphalt under his feet. “I’ve made highways.”
The migrants, who said they gave up trying to enter Mexico legally because the asylum application process was too slow and most want to continue to the US, gathered Saturday at a park in the border city of Ciudad Hidalgo. They voted by a show of hands to continue north en masse, then marched to the bridge crossing the Suchiate River and urged those still on it to come join them.
The decision to re-form the migrant caravan capped a day in which Mexican authorities again refused mass entry to migrants on the bridge, instead accepting small groups for asylum processing and giving out 45-day visitor permits to some. Authorities handed out numbers for people to be processed in a strategy seen before at US border posts when dealing with large numbers of migrants.
But many became impatient and circumventing the border gate, crossing the river on rafts, by swimming or by wading in full view of the hundreds of Mexican police manning the blockade on the bridge. Some paid locals the equivalent of $1.25 to ferry them across the muddy waters. They were not detained on reaching the Mexican bank.
Sairy Bueso, a 24-year old Honduran mother of two, was another migrant who abandoned the bridge and crossed into Mexico via the river. She clutched her 2-year-old daughter Dayani, who had recently had a heart operation, as she got off a raft.
“The girl suffered greatly because of all the people crowded” on the bridge, Bueso said. “There are risks that we must take for the good of our children.”
In addition to those who crossed the river, immigration agents processed migrants in small groups and then bused them to an open-air, metal-roof fairground in Tapachula, where the Red Cross set up small blue tents on the concrete floor.
Mexico’s Interior Department said it had received 640 refugee requests by Hondurans at the border crossing. It released photos of migrants getting off buses at a shelter and receiving food and medical attention.
On Sunday, federal police monitored the caravan’s progress from a helicopter and had a few units escorting it. Outside Tapachula about 500 federal police briefly gathered along the highway on buses and in patrol units, but officers said their instructions were to maintain traffic on the highway not stop the caravan. They moved on toward Tapachula before the caravan reached them.
Migrants cited widespread poverty and gang violence in Honduras, one of the world’s deadliest nations by homicide rate, as their reasons for joining the caravan.
Juan Carlos Mercado, 20, from Santa Barbara, Honduras, says corruption and a lack of jobs in Honduras has stymied him. “We just want to move ahead with our lives,” he said Sunday. He said he’d do any kind of work.
The caravan elicited a series of angry tweets and warnings from Trump early in the week, but Mexico’s initial handling of the migrants at its southern border seemed to have satisfied him more recently.
“So as of this moment, I thank Mexico,” Trump said Friday at an event in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I hope they continue. But as of this moment, I thank Mexico. If that doesn’t work out, we’re calling up the military — not the Guard.”
“They’re not coming into this country,” Trump added.
“The Mexican Government is fully engaged in finding a solution that encourages safe, secure, and orderly migration,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Saturday, “and both the United States and Mexico continue to work with Central American governments to address the economic, security, and governance drivers of illegal immigration.”
After an emergency meeting in Guatemala, presidents Hernandez of Honduras and Jimmy Morales of Guatemala said an estimated 5,400 migrants had entered Guatemala since the caravan was announced a week ago, and about 2,000 Hondurans have returned voluntarily.
Morales said a Honduran migrant died in the town of Villa Nueva, 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Guatemala City, when he fell from a truck.