Kurt Beck, the deputy chairman of Germany's Social Democratic Party, said in an interview here Monday that talks about forming a grand coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats would probably take five to six weeks.

The Social Democrats of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the Christian Democrats have been discussing who will lead the country since Sept. 18 elections ended inconclusively, creating a major political stalemate.

"I think they can reach a convergence of views on foreign policy. There is room for consensus, and you will surely not have a standstill in government during that time," Beck said. For example, he said, both camps had supported the expansion of the German troop commitment to building peace in Afghanistan.

Beck would not say, however, who would be the next chancellor or whether Schroeder was ready to step aside for Merkel, whose conservative bloc won a slight majority of seats in Parliament but not enough to form a government.

Merkel "did not get an absolute ja," meaning yes, he said, because Germans rejected her free-market ideology and revamped tax structures. "The times for shareholder values dictating everything are over," he said, adding that such policies lead to layoffs and unrest.

But he also acknowledged that Schroeder did not get an absolute yes, either.

"The chancellor made clear that he as a person will not stand in the way of a stable government," Beck said.

Officials said Merkel and Schroeder could meet as early as today to discuss the leadership question.

The 'People's Singer'

The general director of the Washington National Opera, world-renowned tenor Placido Domingo, is everywhere these days -- singing, being decorated and orchestrating delectable delights to come. Happiness is excelling in one's passions.

On Sunday evening, the Hungarian ambassador, Andras Simonyi, presented him with the Star of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary. In a warm pre-dinner tribute, Simonyi called the maestro the "people's singer" and "Hungary's honorary cultural ambassador" for his spirited interpretation of opera and music written by Hungarian composers.

Simonyi said the two had often chatted about the resemblance between Hungarian operettas and Spanish zarzuelas, or musical theater.

Last week, Domingo dominated the Kennedy Center stage with virtuoso performances in selections from Giordano's "Fedora," Verdi's "Otello" and Lehar's "The Merry Widow." He was also busy preparing for the grand opening Monday of Zengo, the restaurant he is starting with chef Richard Sandoval on Seventh Street NW. Buen provecho!

Out, and In, From Italy

Barely one day after Italian Ambassador Sergio Vento flew off last Friday, his successor, Giovanni Castellaneta, arrived in Washington. Setting a record in hitting the ground running, the former foreign policy and national security adviser to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi presented copies of his credentials Monday to both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Castellaneta, a lawyer and longtime foreign service officer, has held diplomatic postings in Somalia, Portugal, France and Switzerland, and he has served as ambassador to Iran and Australia. He was also special coordinator for the Italian Reconstruction Program for Albania and personal representative of the Italian prime minister at Group of Eight summits.

From 2002 to 2005, he has also been the deputy chairman of the Finmeccanica Group, a private-public construction and military equipment company. According to Marco Mancini, spokesman at the Italian Embassy, there is no conflict of interest by Italian norms.

"It is not a problem for us. It is more than a ceremonial job, but all he does is represent the firm in international fora," Mancini said.

To Serve and Protect

Beatriz Merino, the popular former Peruvian prime minister who has been working at the World Bank for the past 16 months, will soon return to Peru for a five-year term as national ombudsman.

Merino, a Harvard-trained lawyer, enjoyed a public approval rating of 90 percent as prime minister. But President Alejandro Toledo fired her in 2003 after she publicly complained that a political rival was spreading unfounded rumors that she was a lesbian.

Her new job is aimed at protecting citizens against abuses of public servants. She was elected by parliament last Thursday and will serve as an independent watchdog, free to take on the president, the courts or the police if a citizen files a complaint concerning personal, civil or human rights.

In an e-mail, Merino said she would leave her post at the World Bank, where she specialized in public-sector issues in the Latin American and the Caribbean division.

"I will return to serve my country, this time as an ethical authority and serving particularly the poorest," she wrote. Poetic justice for the defamed?