BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-left rivals said Tuesday they would seek a parliamentary vote this week on legalizing gay marriage after the German leader backed off her conservatives' long-standing refusal to budge on the issue.
Germany has allowed same-sex couples to enter civil partnerships since 2001. Other European countries have since allowed full gay marriage, but much of Merkel's conservative bloc remained reluctant until now.
Merkel said Monday that she could see lawmakers taking up the issue in the future as a "decision of conscience," deciding in a free vote rather than along party lines. That comment came ahead of a Sept. 24 election in which all of Merkel's potential coalition partners, including the center-left Social Democrats of her challenger, Martin Schulz, are calling for same-sex marriage to be legalized.
Parliament's upper house and the opposition Greens and Left Party have proposed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, but it has been stuck in the lower house's legal affairs committee because the current "grand coalition" government of Merkel's conservatives and the Social Democrats was divided.
The Social Democrats leapt on Merkel's comments, which came as the outgoing parliament — in which there's likely a majority for gay marriage — prepares for its last session this week.
"Angela Merkel made ... a move yesterday and we are taking her at her word," Schulz told reporters. The "change of heart ... should be concluded this week," he added.
Schulz spoke after the conservatives' chief whip, Michael Grosse-Broemer, said there was "no need for a rushed decision."
In nearly 12 years as chancellor, Merkel has moved her party to the center and away from conservative orthodoxy, speeding up Germany's exit from nuclear power and ending military conscription among other moves.
Merkel's comments were welcomed by some conservatives, though one prominent lawmaker in her bloc said he didn't want the issue brought to parliament at all.
"Germany has other problems," Peter Ramsauer, a member of the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union, told the daily Rheinische Post. "But the (party) leadership should be wary of destroying the last conservative values."