Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) laid claim on Thursday to being the top party in Germany's inconclusive election, sparking a heated row with Angela Merkel's conservatives before key coalition talks.
Hours before the rival parties meet for the first time since the tight vote, SPD chief Franz Muentefering said he considered Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister Christian Social Union (CSU) to be two separate parties.
The remarks elicited a fierce response from the CDU, with leading conservative Wolfgang Schaeuble accusing the SPD of a "democratic principles deficit."
German Social Democratic Party chairman Franz Muentefering contradicted a senior lawmaker who said the SPD is seeking to change a rule that lets the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, function as a single group in parliament.
Current parliamentary rules recognize the CDU and CSU as a single bloc, but if they were seen as separate the SPD could claim it won the most votes in Sunday's cliff-hanger election, strengthening its bid to keep Schroeder in the Chancellery, Reuters reports.
SPD lawmaker Gernot Erler said in an interview with Berlin- based radio station RBB Inforadio this morning that ``efforts'' to change the rule were being pursued. He later told Bloomberg News in an interview that that meant the idea was under discussion, not that the party intends to put forward a proposal. Schroeder and his Green party allies failed to win enough votes in the election to keep their government in power, while CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel also failed to achieve a majority with her preferred coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party. Both Schroeder and Merkel said they should lead the government after the election, according to Bloomberg. The two parties are due to meet at 2:00 p.m. (1200 GMT) and give statements when the discussions end. Ahead of that meeting, the CDU/CSU leadership was conducting talks with the FDP.