Hoping to win backing for German coalition, SPD boss drops foreign minister plan

Social Democratic Party boss Martin Schulz (File/AFP)
Updated 10 February 2018
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Hoping to win backing for German coalition, SPD boss drops foreign minister plan

BERLIN: The leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), Martin Schulz, gave up plans on Friday to become the country’s next foreign minister, hoping to shore up support among his party’s members for a new ‘grand coalition’ with Angela Merkel's conservatives.
The SPD agreed on Wednesday to form a new government with the conservatives, more than four months after Germany’s election, but the SPD's 464,000 members could still scupper the deal in a ballot whose results will be announced on March 4.
Many grassroots members of the centre-left party are sceptical about another tie-up with the conservatives after serving in a similar coalition in 2013-17. The SPD then suffered its worst result of the postwar era in September’s election.
Schulz’s announcement on Wednesday that he would resign as SPD chairman to become foreign minister prompted strong criticism in the party as he had promised before the September election that he would not serve in a Merkel-led government.
Merkel, who will secure a fourth term as chancellor if the coalition deal holds, has also come under fire from some in her own camp who say she has made too many concessions to the SPD, including handing it control of the powerful finance ministry. The chancellor is desperate to get a government in place and end the months of political limbo that have hampered decision-making in Germany, Europe's largest economy, and caused concern among its partners in the European Union, which faces challenges from eurozone reform to Brexit.
Schulz, who originally strongly opposed another tie-up with the conservatives only to become one of its leading advocates, has lost political credibility but hopes his decision to step aside will now encourage SPD members to back the coalition deal.
A Forsa poll had shown almost three-quarters of Germans thought it would be wrong for Schulz to become foreign minister.
“I sincerely hope that this (decision) will end the personnel debates within the SPD,” Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, said in a statement.

Youthful discontent
Schulz will also step down as party leader, and his likely successor, Andrea Nahles, said the party would now focus on policy content ahead of the ballot.
Kevin Kuehnert, the leader of the SPD’s youth wing, had strongly criticised the focus on staffing over policy in recent days and said some of the top brass needed “to put their ego on the back burner” so members due to vote on the coalition could focus on evaluating the content of the agreement instead.
Kuehnert, 28, is travelling around the country urging members to vote against a ‘grand coalition.’ He told broadcaster SWR he expected a minority government to take charge in Germany, at least for a few months, if SPD members heeded his call.
The SPD and the conservative bloc both need to respect the clear message delivered by voters, Kuehnert said. Merkel’s conservatives also lost support in the September election which saw a far-right party enter parliament for the first time.
Discontent also simmered in the youth wing of the conservatives on Friday. Its leader, Paul Ziemiak, called for a broad discussion about the longer-term future of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
“We shouldn’t only talk about how we want to shape the next four years in Germany but also what the CDU will stand for in future, which topics we can win elections with in the next 10 years and people go along with topics,” he said.
Ziemiak said the CDU should also think about who would lead the party in the future.


Hindu hardliners step up campaign to block Indian temple to women

Updated 18 October 2018
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Hindu hardliners step up campaign to block Indian temple to women

  • The Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala was meant to allow women from Wednesday
  • State authorities have insisted that they will ensure access to the temple

NILACKAL, India: Hindu hardliners blocked intersections, threatened drivers and ordered a 12-hour strike on Thursday as they stepped up their campaign to bar women from one of India’s holiest temples.
The Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala was meant to allow women from Wednesday following an order last month by India’s highest court.
But hundreds of traditionalists, throwing stones at baton-wielding police, defied the order — surrounding and shouting at any woman attempting to make it to the hilltop site.
Angry young men also surrounded and smashed the car windows of female television reporters and threatened others, including an AFP reporter. Another female correspondent was kicked.
Overnight local Hindu groups declared a 12-hour shutdown of local businesses, telling drivers that their vehicles would be attacked if they took anyone toward the temple.
“Some men came to the parking lot early Thursday and warned taxi drivers against defying the shutdown call,” taxi driver Praveen, in the town of Pathanamthitta, said.
“They warned drivers at several nearby parking lots and hotels. Anyone who defies it will be risking damage to his vehicle,” he added in an account corroborated by other drivers.
“No one will get to the temple today because all the drivers are scared for the safety of their cars,” one hotel receptionist said.
State authorities have insisted that they will ensure access to the temple, imposing restrictions on public gatherings that came into force from midnight.
Kerala police, who have drafted in hundreds of extra officers, many with helmets and body armor over their khaki uniforms, provided escorts to some buses.
Police also patrolled through the night and reinforced their presence at Nilackal, the base camp below the temple.
But groups of between 50 and 100 young men gathered at intersections on Thursday, preventing any vehicles from continuing toward the temple.
“Traditions that have existed since before courts cannot be tampered with,” said Krishna Kumar, a tall muscular man in his 20s at one crossroads in the town of Kozhencherry.
Last month India’s Supreme Court overturned a ban on females of menstruating age — judged between 10 and 50 years — entering and praying at the hilltop temple, reached by a tough uphill trek.
Women are permitted to enter most Hindu temples but female devotees are still barred from some.
The entry of women at Sabarimala was long taboo but a ban was formalized by the Kerala High Court in 1991, a ruling overturned by India’s Supreme Court last month.
The restriction reflected an old but still prevalent belief among many that menstruating women are impure, and the fact that the deity Ayyappa was reputed to have been celibate.
The Supreme Court ruling enraged traditionalists, including supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Biju S. Pillai, a local man in his 30s, was one of those opposed to the court ruling, telling AFP that he returned from working in Dubai to “protect the sanctity of the temple.”
“No one should be able to change the way this temple has functioned for centuries,” he said. “If any change is made they will have to kill us and go over our bodies.”
EP Jayarajan, a minister in the Kerala government, blamed the violence on “goons” from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a hardline Hindu group seen as close to Modi’s BJP.
The head of the BJP in Kerala, PS Sreedharan Pillai, said on Wednesday that their party advocated “peaceful protest against the court verdict.”
“The overwhelming majority of women oppose the Supreme Court ruling,” he added.