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Coalition Talks In Germany Collapse, Blow To Merkel's Leadership


Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, is still struggling to form a government. Her party won elections in September. That's the good news for her. The bad news is, she needs to form a coalition with other parties and has failed. Now she and others have been urged to keep trying. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been traveling around Germany, talking with voters. We find her in a shopping mall.

And Soraya, let's start with the political news here. How bad is this?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Oh, it's pretty bad. I mean, certainly, the lack of a coalition government would be unprecedented in post-war German history. So what ended up happening last night is that one of the four parties Merkel needs to form a government walked out. The issue that's been stymieing everybody for weeks has been climate change to some extent, but refugees, for sure, is the main issue.

INSKEEP: Oh, let's talk about this. Germany, of course, has led in a great many refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. Merkel has allowed that but has been criticized. What is it that people want done or her critics want done?

NELSON: Well, there's a real concern about, how do you accommodate all these people? There are still very many of them who haven't been processed. There've been attacks here in Germany carried out by some asylum seekers, the largest-scale one being the Christmas market attack in Berlin last December. And people just want - they're concerned that Germany can handle this.

And certainly, that's the mandate that the voters came back with in September. It's why Merkel's party and her Bavarian ally did not do as well, why the right-wing populace did. And so the discussion that ended up happening over these past four weeks centered a lot on, what should be done with refugees? And so they just couldn't come to any kind of consensus, at least before last night.

INSKEEP: OK, so right-wing populists didn't do that well in the elections but well enough to scramble the results, make it difficult to get a majority coalition. Who could force the parties to work together?

NELSON: Well, interestingly enough, it's the president of Germany. This is mostly a ceremonial post, and now he really holds the future of Germany in his hands. And basically, he can call elections. He can decide whether or not Chancellor Merkel can actually lead a minority government in parliament. But it was interesting - today, he just had harsh words for the parties that were in the negotiations that faltered.



NELSON: Steinmeier says that the parties that were involved in these negotiations asked for the responsibility on September 24 during the elections to form a government and that they have no right to be handing this back to the voters now.

INSKEEP: Soraya, it sounds very interesting where you are. Will you describe what you've been hearing in that shopping mall?

NELSON: Yes. Let me just briefly describe where I am first in Lower Saxony. This is a town called Salzgitter. This is northwestern Germany, and it's the first town in Germany to put a ban on refugees. No more refugees are allowed to move in here because they felt that in a town of 106,000 people that 5,700 refugees were just too many. And so we've been talking to people here. And it's - it doesn't look super diverse when you're standing in the mall. I would say Berlin is far more diverse.

But people here - they're very disappointed in the fact that the talks broke down. We didn't hear a whole lot of people here interested in going to the ballot box again. But they say they understand why the refugee issue is the thing that ended up costing this coalition because they feel this is an issue that the government and that the mainstream parties just have not dealt with.

INSKEEP: Is there support for Angela Merkel even in that place where there is resistance to refugees?

NELSON: Yes, there is. I mean, this is a woman who's been chancellor for 12 years, and there is really no replacement in sight. And the feeling is that she is very methodical in her approach, very rational and reasonable. And so there - I think there is still hope that maybe the mainstream parties pull this out, but they are very angry and disappointed today.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reporting from Germany - thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.