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Party chief quits post; Berlin pact in question

BERLIN -- One of the leaders in Germany's proposed coalition government said yesterday that he was stepping down as his party's chairman, raising questions about the future of the arrangement.

After announcing he would leave as head of the Social Democrats, Franz Müntefering said it was uncertain whether he would serve as vice chancellor in the Cabinet under Chancellor-designate Angela Merkel.

He vowed, however, to continue solidifying the Social Democrats' position in the coalition government with Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats. He referred to it as a ''crowning achievement" of his tenure as party chairman.

''I believe that even when one thing or another has happened, the desire to continue with this coalition remains unchanged," Müntefering told reporters.

Merkel also insisted that both major parties remained committed to the accord reached in October to form a ''grand coalition" after neither party won a majority in parliamentary elections. ''From both sides there is the desire to build a grand coalition," she said.

Yet the Christian Social Union leader, Edmund Stoiber, tapped to be the country's next economic and technology minister, appeared less confident, suggesting his participation in Merkel's government was no longer guaranteed. Stroiber's party, the Christian Democrats' sister party, has a small role in the coalition.

''Mr. Müntefering, as the party chairman, has been a cornerstone of this grand coalition," Stoiber told reporters. ''This cornerstone has now changed and that does have an impact on things for us."

Müntefering made his decision to give up the position after his preferred candidate for the party's post of secretary-general was passed over for another candidate.

Outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the former head of the Social Democrats, attributed the move to the ''ambition" of individuals within the party, but said the development could not be allowed to derail the new government.

''I am very sorry about this," Schroeder said. ''But it cannot be allowed to have any consequences, any negative consequences on the building of a stable government."

Even as questions surrounded the coalition, Merkel, Müntefering, and a handful of others met to seek a compromise on how to close the $42 billion budget gap by the end of 2007.

That is supposed to bring Germany back within European Union spending limits designed to protect the stability of the euro.

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