Merkel Wins Personal Victory But Loses Ally

Germany’s conservatives are within reach of an absolute majority, but their liberal friends are crushed.

German chancellor Angela Merkel answers questions from reporters in Brussels, June 28, 2012
German chancellor Angela Merkel answers questions from reporters in Brussels, June 28, 2012 (Bundesregierung)

German chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday won a resounding victory for her ruling Christian Democrat parties while her liberal allies failed to reenter parliament. The result might yet force the woman leading Europe’s largest economy into a government with one of her socialist rivals.

Partial election results shown on German television Sunday night put Merkel’s conservative parties at 42 percent — their strongest performance since 1990, the year of Germany’s reunification, but just a handful of seats short of an absolute majority in the Bundestag, the lower chamber of parliament.

Merkel’s liberal coalition partners were stuck at 4.7 percent in the polls, however, while a new Euroskeptic party, Alternative für Deutschland, similarly hovered just below the 5 percent election threshold.

“This is a super result,” Merkel told cheering supporters in Berlin. “Together, we will do all we can to make the next four years successful ones for Germany.”

Weekly Der Spiegel attributed Merkel’s success to her “presidential style of government” which has inspired trust among German voters. Even if they aren’t sure what the risk averse chancellor stands for, many Germans feel the country is in good hands.

The liberal Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung similarly argued that Merkel’s prestige gave her Christian Democrats such a big win. “The outcome is an endorsement of her policies as well as her political style.”

Which is simultaneously the “dark side” of Merkel’s success, wrote Heribert Prantl in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The conservative party now “consists of almost nothing but her.”

If the conservatives must soon start thinking about how to remain in power when Merkel steps down, the Social Democrats have a more immediate problem. They barely recovered from what was their worst postwar election performance four years ago when they got 23 percent support. With 26 percent of the votes this time, they would be able to give Merkel a governing majority — but the last such a “grand coalition” was precisely the reason so many leftist voters abandoned the party.

There are also risks for the conservatives in another left-right alliance, warned Ludwig Greven in Die Zeit newspaper. It would make their party even less distinct. Merkel might then be unable to accomplish tax relief at home while the Social Democrats would like to shift the emphasis in Europe from austerity to “growth,” or stimulatory, policies.

Greven suggested a coalition with the Greens instead who, defying optimistic forecasts, came in fourth with around 8 percent support. Merkel could then reach new voters: “young women, environmentally conscious and urban voters who otherwise share conservative values.” Many socially liberal voters sympathize with the Greens’ cosmopolitan outlook and ecologist platform but were spooked at the last moment when the party lurched to the left in an attempt to draw supporters from the far-left Die Linke and thus secure a majority for itself and the Social Democrats.

Die Linke‘s voters were unpersuaded. The party lost roughly a third of its support to the Social Democrats but with 8.4 percent, it will still be the third largest in parliament.

Combined, the three parties on the left will have a majority if neither the liberals nor Alternative für Deutschland get into parliament but the Greens and Social Democrats have ruled out forming an alliance with what is the successor to former East Germany’s ruling communist party.

If Merkel’s Christian Democrats eke out an absolute majority when all the votes are counted, it might still complicate matters for Merkel in Europe as a dozen or so of her own lawmakers have consistently voted against bailouts for highly indebted peripheral eurozone states as well as efforts to further centralize economic and fiscal policymaking in the currency area. Her last government relied on the opposition Social Democrats to enact European policy. They and the Greens are also still in the majority in the upper chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat. Some sort of alliance with one of those parties seems inevitable.

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