There is little doubt that short of a huge and entirely unpredicted upset in next Sunday’s general election in Germany, Angela Merkel will be re-elected Chancellor for a second four-year term. With a 76 per cent popularity rating, she remains one of the most appreciated post-War German leaders.
That does not, however, mean that Germany’s first woman Chancellor is serene and confident. Her peace of mind has recently been shattered by opinion polls which indicate that the impressive 10-point lead her conservative Christian Democratic alliance enjoyed over the left wing coalition made up of the Socialists and the Greens a month ago, has now been whittled down to just one percentage point — almost a re-run of the scenario that played out in 2005.
Tension within Ms. Merkel’s own CDU-CSU alliance has increased this past week with all eyes now riveted upon Guido Westerwelle, charismatic leader of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). How will the CDU’s overtures to the Free Democrats be perceived by voters still feeling the hurt from the economic crisis that so bruised and battered them? Will Ms. Merkel’s repeated and spirited attacks on corporate “greed” put voters off the Free Democrats who want to reduce taxation and regulations? Will she be seen as running with the hares and hunting with the hounds? According to the latest polls, the CDU and the FDP could still secure a slim parliamentary majority, though the gap has significantly narrowed. The CDU currently stands at 36 per cent in the polls, and the FDP at 13 per cent.
In the 2005 elections Ms. Merkel was tipped to become the new Chancellor with a comfortable majority. She made it to the top job, but by the skin of her teeth, and was forced into an unhappy grand coalition with the main opposition Social Democrat (SPD) which sneaked up from behind to almost pip her at the post.
The FDP, which has been courted by both, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, has recently plumped for the CDU saying it would be suicidal for Germany to allow another grand coalition between the Socialists and the Conservatives or the so-called traffic-light coalition of red, green and yellow between the Socialists, the Liberals and the Greens.
“Because the manifestos of the SPD and the Greens will raise the burden on the taxpayer, we Free Democrats are not available to help the SPD and Greens get a majority,” said FDP’s leader, Guido Westerwelle, in a statement.
The SPD has said it would prefer to lead a red-green-yellow coalition. But the Greens have proved to be difficult partners in the past and a repeat of the present grand coalition is in fact SPD leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier secret wish.
Peer Steinbrück, Finance Minister, made this public when he said such an outcome would be “no bad thing”. After tackling the financial crisis together, the two parties had “more in common than ever”, he said. This would allow the Socialists to retain major portfolios such as Finance and Foreign Affairs. The SPD has therefore indulged in some stone throwing of its own, trying to frighten off voters from a CDU-FDP coalition, by warning them that the FPD’s openly free-market policies would “dominate the policies of a centre-right government”.
The SPD’s chances might even improve during this last week of campaigning since the former Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, a remarkable orator, has waded into the campaign. Polls currently give the SPD 25 per cent of the vote, its lowest score ever, and the Socialists are hoping Mr. Schroeder will able to counter the inroads into its popularity made by Die Linke (former communists and SPD dissidents) whose leader, Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD boss who broke ranks to form the radical left party, is a formidable rival. Mr. Lafontaine’s Die Linke, which made a strong showing in the former East Germany is hoping to win over 10 per cent of the vote. He could seriously mar the SPD’s chances.
This campaign has been nothing if not sedate and boring. With four years of a very popular leader at the helm and a coalition that has worked surprisingly well, observers felt major issues would come to the fore, such as the international role Germany wishes to fashion for itself or if it wants to show more muscle within Europe.
But none of these issues have been cleared up. Until three weeks ago when the killing of over 70 Afghan civilians in a NATO air raid ordered by a German commander led to immense soul searching, the question of Germany’s role within NATO and its combat operations had been disguised as “humanitarian and reconstruction” activities.
Instead of the firm Atlanticism which was expected of Ms. Merkel, there has been a surprising cosying up to Russia and even within the European Union Germany has raised a voice of dissent, putting self- interest before the common good, as in the case of the European bail out package for distressed banks, a move never seen before.
This campaign has been singularly devoid of debate mainly because the two main supposed rivals, the SPD and the CDU have so diluted their respective ideologies as to resemble clones of each other. It is not without reason that members of her own CDU accuse Ms. Merkel of becoming “centrist” and “leftist”. It is equally true that the SPD has set aside many of the social sops and pro-worker reforms it had promised.
Had Ms. Merkel been a better campaigner she could have envisaged forming a government on her own. But she appears to have no taste for it. Her campaign has been almost non-existent, almost as if, as one commentator put it, all this was just “business as usual”. She has stressed her steadiness at the helm, her no-nonsense efficiency and her reliability. She has underlined the trust she has managed to build with the German people. But she has made no real effort to fight this election the way elections are fought, as if she preferred the cover the grand coalition gives her. As Chancellor of a purely conservative government, Ms. Merkel would have been too exposed, her critics say. She has preferred not to take that risk. So, after an indecisive campaign, the most likely scenario now appears to that of a repeat grand coalition.