BERLIN (AP) -- Germany's main center-left party said Friday it is prepared to hold preliminary talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives to explore the possibility of a "grand coalition" after both sides failed to gain an absolute majority in the general election.
Social Democratic Party Chairman Sigmar Gabriel said a majority of delegates at a party meeting backed the step late Friday, but they would have another say before any formal negotiations with Merkel's Union bloc begin. A final coalition agreement would have to be approved by majority of the party's 470,000 members, dampening any prospect of a quick deal.
"It's Mrs. Merkel's job to create a government," said Gabriel, insisting that his party wouldn't compete with its one-time allies, the Greens, for the Chancellor's affection.
Merkel's bloc, made up of the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, won 41.5 percent of the vote in Sunday's national election. But her pro-business coalition partner failed to clear the 5 percent threshold, putting the conservatives five seats short of a parliamentary majority. The Social Democratic Party, meanwhile, received 25.7 percent, while the Greens got 8.4 percent.
The idea of a coalition with Merkel's Union bloc is controversial within both losing parties, with many of the rank-and-file fearing they will be unable to push forward their domestic agenda.
Gabriel said his party wasn't afraid of going into opposition, nor of the prospect of fresh elections.
Still, an ARD television poll of 1,000 people conducted Tuesday and Wednesday found 48 percent prefer a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, ahead of 18 percent support for a conservative-Green alliance. It gave a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 points.
Peer Steinbrueck, the man who had led the Social Democrats into the election, told delegates he planned to step back from front row posts in the party and in Parliament, though he is likely to stay on for any coalition talks.
"My career will come to an orderly end," the German news agency dpa quoted him as saying.
Geir Moulson and Robert H. Reid contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.