German SPD chief warns Merkel of coalition ills

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BERLIN, Oct 21 (Reuters) The leader of Germany's beleaguered Social Democrats (SPD) warned conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel today that a two-year honeymoon period was over for their grand coalition government.

After a long slide in opinion polls, Kurt Beck has been pushing the SPD to the left before a party congress next week and said he was fed up with his party being blamed for coalition failures while Merkel gets the credit for its accomplishments.

''Unfortunately, in Berlin you can no longer rely on getting any benefit out of quietly co-governing,'' Beck told Der Spiegel news magazine in an interview to be published tomorrow.

''If the one side is always drooling about ways to raise its profile, there's nothing you can do except adopt the same tactic,'' said Beck. ''It's unfortunate.'' Beck's warnings of stormy times ahead for the coalition before the next scheduled election in 2009 were quickly criticised by conservative leaders.

''You can't have one foot inside this coalition and then put your other foot on the left and work as an opposition force against the coalition,'' said Erwin Huber, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU.

Volker Kauder, CDU parliamentary floor leader, also attacked Beck in an interview to appear in Bild newspaper tomorrow.

''It's not going to help anyone if Beck starts trouble for the voters and caves in to the pressure from the Left party,'' he said.

''That's not going to help the SPD, nor the grand coalition and above all it's not going to help the nation.'' Beck, who is the state premier in Rhineland-Palatinate but does not have a seat in Merkel's cabinet, has watched support for his party erode from 34.2 per cent in the 2005 election to about 28-31 percent now.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), meanwhile, have climbed from 34.9 per cent in the 2005 vote to about 40 per cent. Merkel has towered over Beck in personal popularity surveys with the German economy flourishing over the last two years.

The SPD's weakness has come despite what pollsters say has been a palpable shift to the left in the German electorate since 2005. The ex-communist Left Party has risen to about 11 per cent and the Greens are up to around 10 per cent.

''We need to show more warmth,'' said Beck, who was long considered a centrist in his party before his lurch left.

Last week Beck brushed away objections from Vice Chancellor Franz Muentefering of the SPD and announced the SPD now wants to extend unemployment benefits for older workers -- scrapping a key pillar of the SPD's ''Agenda 2010'' labour market reforms.

It is unclear whether the proposal will ever become law.

But it was a stunning about-face for the SPD that had adopted those pain-causing pro-business reform policies under ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder four years ago. They had suffered a long line of electoral defeats as a result since.


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