Merkel’s strength at the polls leaves her searching for a coalition partner

In the wake of arguably Europe’s most important election since the outbreak of the eurozone debt crisis in 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decisive showing may ironically prove to be her Achilles heel. Although Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) managed to secure a whopping 41 percent of the vote on Sunday, their victory is in certain respects a hollow one.

The chancellor’s governing partners in the last coalition, the both fiscally conservative and socially liberal Free Democrats, have failed to surpass the all-important five percent hurdle. That means they will not have representation in the upcoming parliament. And Merkel’s Christian Democrats just barely missed securing an absolute majority on their own. Their nearly 8 percent gain compared to the 2009 election result came partially at the expense of the FDP.  So although the Christian Democrats are indisputably the strongest force in German politics, they apparently aren’t strong enough. Germans overwhelmingly confirmed Merkel as chancellor, but effectively voted against her now defunct center-right coalition.

As a consequence, the chancellor will have to seek a coalition partner among one of the opposition center-left parties, with the most likely candidate being the Social Democrats. The CDU and the SPD governed together in a grand coalition from 2005-2009. Other political combinations seem unrealistic. Although Merkel moved to trade nuclear for renewable energy in the wake of Fukushima, she still remains far apart from the Greens on economic and social issues. Likewise when it comes to the socialist Left party, still the pariah of the German political system.

A grand coalition would alter the political landscape in Berlin. The Social Democrats won a respectable 25 percent of the vote and are firmly anchored in a broad base of support. Merkel will not be able to simply twist the SPD’s arm and pull them in her direction, as was the case with the much smaller FDP.

The bottom line: Europe’s political landscape continues its slight tilt leftward. When Greece first asked for a bailout in 2010, Merkel was governing in a secure center-right coalition. She had a conservative ally in neighboring France, Nicolas Sarkozy. Today, Merkel faces the prospect of a coalition with Social Democrats, while a socialist president already resides in the Elysee in Paris. In light of this, the eurozone’s debt-stricken member states may be hoping for a reprieve from biting austerity and more focus on economic stimulus. But they shouldn’t expect drastic change in short order. After all, the SPD – despite its rhetoric – has voted for Merkel’s eurozone policies.

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