Merkel Appeals to German Voters to Stay the Course

After “four good years,” the chancellor wonders, why should voters consider ousting her coalition?

German chancellor Angela Merkel answers questions from reporters after a European Council meeting in Brussels, October 19, 2012
German chancellor Angela Merkel answers questions from reporters after a European Council meeting in Brussels, October 19, 2012 (Bundesregierung)

Germany’s conservative chancellor Angela Merkel urged voters on Sunday night to stay the course. “We have had four good years for Germany and I believe the next four years will be good as well,” she said at the end of a televised debate with the Social Democrat leader Peer Steinbrück.

Steinbrück, who is trailing badly in opinion polls, confronted the incumbent over an imminent third bailout program for Greece, which would be deeply unpopular in Germany. Merkel refused to discuss specifics, saying “as chancellor” she had a responsibility to keep the pressure on Greece to enact necessary economic and fiscal reforms. The promise of another bailout might alleviate that pressure. Rather than discussing more financial aid for profligate member states or eurobonds — the pooling of sovereign debt in the eurozone; unacceptable to most Germans — “everyone must take his own responsibility,” she said.

Steinbrück, a former finance minister whose party is seen as more pro-European than Merkel’s, appealed to Germans’ sense of “European responsibility.” While he said he agreed with the need for fiscal consolidation in high debt nations in the south of Europe, he advised against doing it in “deadly doses,” recommending something of a second Marshall Plan to save the eurozone instead. Merkel shot back that the Social Democrats had voted with the coalition on every European policy decision.

Much of the debate, which was simultaneously broadcast across Germany’s private and public television networks, was devoted to economic policy and employment. Steinbrück advocated a nationwide minimum wage, a key Social Democrat election platform, saying every German should be able to make a living off a regular job. Merkel agreed but cautioned against the government dictating wages. She added, “We musn’t do anything that threatens jobs.” Under a left-wing government, she warned, the conditions for job creation would worsen whereas Germans today are better off than they were four years ago when her coalition with the liberal Free Democrats took office. Germany is the “engine of growth in Europe”, she said, and it should stay that way.

Unemployment has dropped from an almost 8.5 percent high in 2009 to under 5.5 percent this year. Steinbrück complained that labor conditions had become too flexible but Merkel pointed out that 21 million Germans have jobs with full social benefits and low paid jobs are justified to give people a “chance to enter employment.”

In her closing statement, Merkel vowed that taxes would not be raised if her right-wing government was reelected. The fact that taxes weren’t reduced and regulations for businesses not further liberalized in the last four years, however, is why Merkel’s coalition party is doing so poorly.

If the liberals fail to cross the 5 percent election threshold — most surveys suggest they will narrowly manage to reenter parliament — a “grand coalition” between the Christian and Social Democrats is most likely, even if both candidates again ruled it out on Sunday night.

Conservatives, including Merkel’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, have warned voters that the only alternative to the conservative-liberal alliance is a leftist administration supported by Die Linke. Steinbrück, who, like his predecessors, has shunned what is the successor to communist East Germany’s ruling socialist party, would rather govern with the Greens alone. Although polls predict that the Greens will replace the liberal party as the third largest in parliament, it will probably not get enough seats to help the Social Democrats find a majority.