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Can Merkel Make It? By: Ulf Gartzke
Weekly Standard | Friday, September 18, 2009

Ten days before the Bundestag (federal) elections scheduled for September 27, the race pitting Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) against her foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is suddenly tightening up. For a long time, the conventional wisdom in Germany had been that Angela Merkel--boosted by strong personal approval ratings--would be able to lead the conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union parties to easy victory, join forces with the free-market FDP, and throw the unpopular "Grand Coalition" government with the left-wing SPD party into the dustbin of history.

Given the personal political styles of Merkel and Steinmeier, and the fact that both are currently sharing power in Berlin, the election campaign has been for the most part rather dull and uneventful, lacking the kind of sharp, polarizing clashes over Iraq or taxation policy that one could see during the 2002 and 2005 campaigns. No wonder that 25 to 30 percent of the voters have not yet made up their mind about which party they will eventually support. This time, in essence, Merkel has tried to capitalize on the "Chancellor bonus", successfully portraying herself as a middle-of-the-road "mother-of-the-nation" type who will make sure that the world's top exporter quickly recovers from the current economic crisis.

"No experiments" is pretty much the leitmotif of Angela Merkel's re-election campaign. Economic conservatives, however, are very disappointed that Merkel has decided to play it safe, opting against pursuing any far-reaching structural reforms and tax cuts for fear that left-wing political opponents could denounce her as a cold-hearted economic "neo-liberal". Germany's GDP is forecast to contract by more than 6 percent this year and unemployment--currently held down by government-subsidized part-time job schemes--is set to rise again above 4 million by 2010. While German consumer spending remains surprisingly resilient and incoming industrial orders have gone up sharply in recent months, the shockwaves of the economic meltdown will hit many people with full force next year.

Foreign minister Steinmeier, for his part, has tried to run as an economic populist, calling for, among other things, strict limits on executive compensation, a general minimum wage, higher taxes for the rich, and a new levy on stock market transactions in an effort to mobilize his SPD base and woo voters away from the surging rival post-Communist "Left Party"--Die Linke. His clumsy attempt to get political mileage out of the Opel crisis, however, was thwarted by the chancellor, who managed to keep this potentially sensitive issue under control by helping to broker a last-minute Canadian-Russian rescue deal for the troubled GM subsidiary.

On the foreign policy front, a deadly air strike on two Taliban-hijacked tanker trucks in Kunduz on September 4--called in by German forces and carried out by U.S. fighter jets--prompted a massive barrage of domestic and international criticism vis-à-vis Berlin's handling of this particular incident and, by implication, the Afghan mission in general. Afghanistan, a topic that both Merkel and Steinmeier had deliberately tried to keep out of the campaign, was suddenly front and center, especially as more and more details emerged about the civilian casualties involved. However, Chancellor Merkel quickly went on the political offensive and strongly defended the Bundeswehr's more than 4,000-strong ISAF deployment. Merkel was also unusually blunt in hitting back at her critics--including key allies like the United States and France--and made it clear that she opposes making premature judgments and jumping to conclusions before all results of the ongoing NATO investigation into the air strike are known.

Foreign minister Steinmeier, to his credit, also backed the current ISAF mission during a recent special parliamentary debate, thus resisting the temptation to pursue a pacifist "get-out-of-Afghanistan-now" approach which is embraced by about 60 percent of the German electorate. For better or worse, Steinmeier is a technocrat who lacks the ruthless opportunism and political killer instincts of his mentor and former boss, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. That being said, Steinmeier vowed just a few days ago that, if elected chancellor, he would try to create the conditions by 2013 so that Germanys' military withdrawal from Afghanistan can begin. While the foreign minister rejected the notion that he has set a fixed date for a future Bundeswehr pull-out, Steinmeier's latent political message to the voters is clear: This is not an open-ended commitment, we have an exit strategy, and under my leadership our boys will definitely come home earlier than if Angela Merkel remains chancellor.

Finally, while the race is still very fluid, a few key observations can already be made: First, Merkel's CDU/CSU parties will surely defend their position as the biggest parliamentary group in the new Bundestag, most likely with a double-digit lead over its SPD rival. Second, a center-right CDU/CSU-FDP coalition remains a distinct possibility, even though the latest polls suggest an erosion of support for Merkel's putative coalition partner. Sensing the dead-heat, the chancellor has already made it clear that she would even form an FDP coalition with just a one-seat majority. Third, another edition of the current CDU/CSU-SPD "Grand Coalition" is always possible, and is especially favored by moderate SPD folks who fear that, once in opposition, their party will veer sharply to the left. Fourth, a CDU/CSU-led coalition with the FDP and the Greens would be very difficult to pull off politically, but should not be ruled out entirely. After all, one should never underestimate the ambitions of two parties that have already been waiting to get back into national government for a combined 15 years. Finally, Steinmeier's only way to the chancellorship--short of a pact with the post-Communist "Left Party" which he has categorically rejected--is a potential coalition with the FDP and the Greens. However, the political obstacles involved are extremely difficult to overcome, especially as a sudden FDP alliance with the SPD would destroy the party by driving away many of the FDP's economic conservatives. To sum things up, Chancellor Merkel is bound to stay in office, the big question is what kind of coalition government she will lead.

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