Germany's new power-sharing government begins to take shape

Germany's new power-sharing government began to take shape on Thursday, with the Social Democrats (SPD) choosing a close ally of Gerhard Schroeder for the Foreign Ministry and an economic pragmatist for finance.Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 49, Chancellor Schroeder's chief of staff since 1999 and a relative unknown on the national political scene, was nominated by the SPD to fill the key Foreign Ministry post, party officials said.

He will be joined in a new cabinet by Peer Steinbrueck, a no-nonsense centrist who is slated to become finance minister, and SPD chairman Franz Muentefering, a worker-friendly traditionalist who will wield ample power in the dual role of labour minister and vice-chancellor.

The SPD is to name half of the 16 cabinet members under a deal struck on Monday, which makes conservative leader Angela Merkel chancellor and sets the stage for the first German "grand coalition" of the centre-right and centre-left since the 1960s.

Neither the conservatives nor the SPD won enough support in a September 18 election to form a government with their preferred partners, forcing them into coalition talks with each other.

If those talks, which begin on Monday and are expected to last nearly a month, are successful then Merkel will replace Schroeder and be charged with holding together the fragile bi-partisan government.

The only conservative minister that has been named so far is Edmund Stoiber, longtime head of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), who is set to take the economy and technology portfolio. Merkel is expected to unveil the remaining names on Monday, members of her Christian Democrats (CDU) said.

Given the power-sharing nature of the new government, it is unclear how much influence individual ministers will have. Cabinet decisions will require broad consensus and policy debates will be fraught, given the ideological differences between the rival parties.

Steinmeier would replace Joschka Fischer, who saw his own influence over policy curtailed in recent years as Schroeder took increasing interest in foreign affairs, installing influential advisers in the chancellery.

He is an unknown quantity in foreign affairs circles and his appointment may reflect the fact that the SPD lacks strong next-generation candidates for the key post.

German media reports in recent days said the party leadership had tried to persuade Brandenburg premier Matthias Platzeck to become foreign minister with a view to grooming him as a future chancellor candidate, but he refused, reports the Reuters. I.L.

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