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Angela Merkel’s Triumph, With A Catch


Chancellor Angela MerkelHow the outcome of Germany’s federal elections will effect the country and the Eurozone
Never has a vote in Germany been followed so closely across Europe. Germany is Europe’s largest (and the world’s fourth largest) economy, its government has the leading voice in governing the Eurozone. Merkel’s steady stewardship of the country through the Eurozone crisis, and her “no-nonsense”-attitude to struggling members of the currency union has earned her both commendations at home and criticism abroad. The United States appreciates the strength and stability of Europe’s economic powerhouse but is skeptical of Merkel’s austerity-focused policies.

With high approval rates in pre-election polls, it came as no surprise that Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union won last Sunday’s parliamentary elections. In gaining 41.5 percent of the vote, falling just five seats short of an absolute majority, Merkel almost wrote history: The last time a party had an absolute majority in Germany was in 1957 with Konrad Adenauer, the country’s first post-World War II chancellor. The No. 2 party nationally, the Social Democrats, failed to meet their election goal and won only 25.7 percent of the vote, followed by the The Left party (the successor of the Socialist Community Party from former East Germany) with 8.6 percent and the Greens with 8.4 percent. The voter turnout was 71.5 percent, the second lowest since 1949. (The turnout for the 2012 U.S. Presidential election was ~58 percent.)

Despite Merkel’s impressive win it is not clear how she will govern in her third four-year term. German politics is all about forging coalitions and alliances. Merkel’s allies for the past four years, the business-minded Free Democrats, lost their place in parliament, coming up short with 4.8 of the 5 percent needed for parliamentary representation.

Analysts suggested that Merkel’s major gain to some extent happened at her former allies’ expense, a fate that another former partner knows only too well: In 2005, the Social Democrats joined Merkel’s Christian Democrats for a “grand coalition”. After a successful four year term, Merkel was reelected as chancellor, while the Social Democrats were punished by voters and their own party base for playing the role of Merkel’s junior partner.

A coalition of the conservative Christian Democratic Union with the left Greens is unlikely, although there have been people in both parties flirting with the idea. Besides Merkel’s pragmatic approach to politics, there is some common ground, such as in environmental and foreign politics. In view of the fact that, by American standards, Germany’s parliamentary spectrum only ranges from center to extreme left, the differences between the two parties are not irreconcilable in the long run.

Mathematically, the three parties on the left could also form a majority, but the Social Democrats have, both for political and historical reasons, repeatedly ruled out working with the Socialists at a federal level.

Merkel has said she’s ready to begin talks with the Social Democratic Party, knowing that a “grand coalition” is highly popular with the majority of Germans. For the Social Democrats, it’s a dilemma: Still feeling the pain of being the Christian Democrat’s junior partner, a refusal could lead to new elections and an even stronger Angela Merkel. Odds are that we’ll see a revival of the 2005-2009 center-left coalition.

For Europe, this means continuity of Germany’s mix of austerity and solidarity in managing the troubled Eurozone, a course not everybody is happy with. When last year President Obama sent former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, to sway the German government to do more to encourage growth and investment, the outcome was more of an alienation. But apart from Obama’s and Merkel’s different opinions on how to deal with the Eurozone’s economic crisis, they share the same political values and foreign policy goals. After a bumpy start, they established a good working relationship and maybe even more: When Obama first came to Berlin as a presidential candidate in 2008, he was not allowed to speak at the Brandenburg Gate (that was only for protocol reasons, but caused some consternation). After a meeting in the White House in 2011 Merkel reportedly told Obama: “The next time you come to Germany, you can speak at any gate you want.”

Patrick Schultheis
The author was a press officer for both German Chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel from 2004-2008, and is an associate member of the Point Loma Democratic Club.

How does voting work in Germany?
In the elections for the federal parliament, the Bundestag, Germans get two votes, one for a local candidate, and one for a party.
The Bundestag’s 622 seats are divided between the two, with 299 going to local candidates (under a first-past-the-post system), and the remainder allotted to politicians from party lists, on a proportional representation basis.
To enter parliament, each party must secure a minimum of 5 percent of the vote to win seats in parliament. Votes given to parties that do not meet this threshold are redistributed amongst those that do.