Germany's Merkel embarks on new talks to form government

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a statement prior to a meeting with the leaders of the conservative CDU/CSU union and the social democratic SPD party in Berlin on Jan. 7, 2018. (DPA via AFP)
Updated 07 January 2018

Germany's Merkel embarks on new talks to form government

BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel embarked Sunday on talks with the center-left Social Democrats on forming a new government, with leaders stressing the need for speed as they attempt to break an impasse more than three months after the country's election.
Leaders aim to decide by Friday whether there's enough common ground to move on to formal coalition negotiations. Whatever the result, it will be a while yet before a new administration is in place to end what is already post-World War II Germany's longest effort to put together a new government.
Why is there an impasse?
Germany's Sept. 24 election produced a parliamentary majority for only two plausible coalitions: the outgoing alliance of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and its Bavaria-only sister, the Christian Social Union, with the Social Democrats; or an untried combination of the conservatives, the pro-business Free Democrats and the left-leaning Greens. The Social Democrats vowed after slumping to their worst post-war election result to go into opposition, so Merkel opened talks on the alternative coalition — which collapsed in November. The Social Democrats then reluctantly reconsidered their refusal to mull extending the "grand coalition" of Germany's biggest parties. Shortly before Christmas, Germany beat its previous record of 86 days — set in 2013 — for the time from an election to the swearing-in of a new government.
How much longer?
If the parties decide this week that they are prepared to open formal coalition negotiations, that will require approval Jan. 21 by a congress of the Social Democrats. Party leader Martin Schulz, Merkel's defeated challenger in September, may face a tough job convincing members who so far are deeply skeptical of being junior partners in another "grand coalition." Those negotiations would take weeks. Further, Social Democrat leaders have promised to hold a ballot of the full party membership on any coalition deal — taking several more weeks.
What are the issues?
Possible stumbling blocks include migration: the conservatives want to maintain a block that bans migrants granted a status short of full asylum from bringing their closest relatives to Germany, while the Social Democrats want to end it. The two sides could also clash over the Social Democrats' call to reform the health insurance system and their differing ambitions for the European Union. Schulz recently advocated aiming for a federal "United States of Europe" by 2025, which goes too far for conservatives.
What if talks fail?
If the parties failed to form a coalition, the only remaining options would be for Merkel's conservatives to lead an unprecedented minority government, or a new election. Schulz has said some form of support for a minority government is an option for his party, but Merkel has made clear she wants a coalition. Polls so far suggest that a new election would produce a similar result to the last one.
And who would decide?
The road to either a minority government or a new election involves President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who so far has opposed a new vote. The German Parliament cannot dissolve itself and Merkel cannot call a confidence vote as a caretaker chancellor. Steinmeier would first have to propose a chancellor to Parliament, who must win support from a majority of all lawmakers to be elected. If that fails, Parliament has 14 days to elect a candidate of its own choosing, again by an absolute majority. If that also fails, Steinmeier could choose to appoint a candidate who wins the most votes but falls short of a majority — or dissolve Parliament. An election would then have to be held within 60 days.


A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

Updated 10 min 50 sec ago

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.