BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel has not alienated conservative German voters by pushing her Christian Democrats into the center but has instead put the party on course to win for a third straight term in September, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said.
In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine on Sunday, the powerful leader of the CDU's conservative wing made it clear to fellow right wingers they should stop sniping at Merkel if they want to help keep the party in power for four more years.
Schaeuble also ruled out for the first time a "grand coalition" with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), a right-center alliance that many analysts expect to be the outcome in September. He also ruled out a coalition with the Greens.
Merkel, seeking a third term, has been under fire from the right wing of her CDU for pushing the party away from its conservative roots. Since 2009 the CDU has abandoned conscription, nuclear power and university fees. It is also now opening itself to quotas for women executives and gay rights.
"We're not scaring away anyone," Schaeuble told der Spiegel in a stirring defense of Merkel four months before the election. "On the contrary, the CDU is in a better position right now than ever before and I'm not just talking about opinion polls.
"Merkel's doing a remarkable job," he added, pointing to the political weakness and infighting plaguing conservative parties in France and Britain. "Everyone will tell you that society has changed a lot in the last 20 years. We've got to accept that."
Schaeuble, 70, rejected the suggestion that conservatives feel estranged by Merkel's centrist strategies [ID:nL6N0BQ6HF]
"I also consider myself to be a conservative and I don't know anyone in the CDU who feels estranged by Merkel," he said.
Merkel has high approval ratings although she is viewed skeptically by the right wing of her party. Her popularity has helped the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), open up a wide lead ahead of the September 22 election.
In a poll published in Bild am Sonntag, the CDU/CSU would win 40 percent, up 1 point in the past week, while the SPD would win 27 percent, also up 1 point. But the CDU/CSU's coalition partners, the Free Democrats, at 4 percent, would fail to win seats in parliament.
The SPD and its preferred center-left partners, the Greens (13 percent), would also fall short of a majority. Analysts expect the CDU/CSU and SPD to form another grand coalition, like the right-center alliance that ruled from 2005 to 2009.
But Schaeuble became the first senior CDU figure to rule a "grand coalition" in the interview published on Sunday - using the threat of an SDP-Greens coalition in power as part of his rallying call.
"We won't form a coalition with anyone - if the center-right doesn't win a majority, then the SPD and Greens will repeat what they did in North Rhine-Westphalia," he said, referring to an inconclusive election in the state in 2010 when the SPD formed a minority coalition with the Greens that got backing from the far left-wing Left party.
He said he was confident the center right would win re-election in September.
(Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Alison Williams)