Germany is set to legalise same-sex marriage as early as this week, it emerged today, after an election-year shift on the issue by Chancellor Angela Merkel sparked a rapid push for a parliamentary vote.
The reform would grant full marital rights, including being able to jointly adopt children, to gay and lesbian couples, who in Germany are now only able to enter so-called civil unions.
Merkel, leader of the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), had long voiced personal reservations about such a change, citing concern about "the well-being of the children".
Her junior coalition partners and election rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD), upped the ante by declaring they would insist on same-sex marriage in any future alliance.
Other political parties -- the Greens, far-left Linke and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) -- agree, leaving only the CDU opposed, along with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Merkel signalled her shifting position in an on-stage interview with the editor of women's magazine Brigitte.
She said her thinking had changed after a "memorable experience" when she recently met a lesbian couple who lovingly care for eight foster children in her Baltic coast electorate.
Merkel used a characteristically vague formulation to drop the bombshell news: "I would like to shift the discussion in the direction of a vote of conscience rather than imposing anything from the top."
Allowing lawmakers to vote according to their conscience, rather than having to tow the party line, is seen as a near- certain way to push through same-sex marriage, which polls say a large majority of German voters favour.
Merkel's comment sparked a flurry of reactions on social media overnight, with the #EheFuerAlle (MarriageForAll) hashtag trending on Twitter, and the news dominated morning radio and TV bulletins.
this is such a big step for germany I really hope everyone will be able to marry the one they love it's about damn time #Ehefueralle— levi (@minseoksking) June 27, 2017
CDU lawmaker Stefan Kaufmann tweeted: "Thank you, Angela Merkel! How liberating! If it were up to me, we could have the vote this week!"
The leader of the group of gay and lesbian lawmakers within the CDU-CSU bloc, Alexander Vogt, hailed Merkel's comments as a "paradigm shift" and told AFP that "now there is no way back".
And the head of the federal anti-discrimination agency, Christina Lueders, said lesbians and gays "should not have to wait for many more months" for a decision.
She said a survey by her office had found that 83 per cent of Germans favour same-sex marriage.
Several other lawmakers also urged a parliamentary vote before the Bundestag breaks for its summer recess Friday.
The SPD's top election candidate, Martin Schulz, then sought to recapture ownership of the issue and vowed to force a vote this week, with support of the Greens and Linke.
The conservatives' parliamentary chief Volker Kauder angrily fired back that forcing a hasty vote amounted to a "breach of trust" between the coalition partners.
Kauder left open whether in the event of a vote, his lawmakers could decide according to their conscience, as suggested by Merkel, telling journalists only that "we'll see".
But shortly afterwards, news broke that Merkel had indeed told her party MPs they could decide freely on the issue.
For the SPD, being seen to have forced Merkel's hand would spell a badly-needed victory as it lags the CDU in opinion polls.
But it would also deprive it of a key campaign issue, while Merkel could keep open all coalition options if the CDU emerges as the strongest party in the September 24 election.
(Feature Image Source: Reuters)