Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) voted on Thursday to allow preliminary talks on whether to enter a "grand coalition" with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister Christian Social Union (CSU).
About 600 members of the center-left party gathered for several hours and voted with a large majority to enter exploratory talks that could eventually end Germany's government stalemate.
The SPD motion said the "open-ended" talks will start next week and would lead to three options: a new grand coalition; the acceptance of a Merkel minority government or, if negotiations fail, new elections.
After an extremely disappointing result in September's election, SPD leader Martin Schulz ruled out forming a grand coalition, even sticking to his guns for some time when the so-called Jamaica coalition talks collapsed, raising the specter of a minority government.
CDU welcomes decision
The CDU said it welcomed the new SPD decision. "The aim of the CDU/CSU is to form a reliable and stable government for our country," CDU federal manager Klaus Schüler said. "The CDU will now discuss the next steps at a meeting of the federal executive committee on Sunday and Monday."
Senior CSU parliamentarian Alexander Dobrindt made light of the new position, saying that the SPD had finally stopped sulking.
"It will be tough negotiations, but it is clear that Germany needs a stable government," CSU Secretary General Andreas Scheue said.
SPD delegates delivered a series of impassioned speeches against teaming up with Merkel again and criticizing Schulz's leadership. A motion to rule-out talks with the CDU and CSU failed to pass.
Schulz kept as leader
Right after Thursday's vote to start talks, Schulz was re-elected as the party's head. Schulz received 81.9 percent of the vote, down from the 100 percent he received when he was first elected party leader in March.
Schulz's predecessor Sigmar Gabriel congratulated him in a post on Twitter.
"Convincing speech, convincing party congress and now a really convincing result! Especially in light of the difficult situation. Congratulations," Gabriel wrote.
This is a breaking news story. We are updating this article as information comes in.
aw/msh (Reuters, dpa, AFP)