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German government's future questioned

Less than a year ago Chancellor Angela Merkel was riding high - triumphing in elections that allowed her to create the center-right coalition she'd long craved.

world Updated: Jun 15, 2010 20:49 IST

Less than a year ago Chancellor Angela Merkel was riding high - triumphing in elections that allowed her to create the center-right coalition she'd long craved.

Now, her government is looking increasingly brittle and there is a sense the government could even collapse - a rarity in postwar Germany which would rattle markets as Europe looks to its biggest economy for stability and leadership in guiding it out of its worst financial mess since the euro's creation.

The latest crisis involves Merkel's choice of candidate for Germany's largely ceremonial presidency - but the governing alliance has long been riven with tensions over everything from tax cuts to aid for automaker Opel.

Those differences have been exacerbated by the debt crisis. "In better days, this coalition would probably have had a chance," the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung commented in an editorial this week. "But in view of the scale of the crisis, its unity has proved grotesquely limited."

Merkel - fresh from reluctantly pushing through two rescue packages for Germany's partners - this month swept tax cuts off the table and drew up an euro80 billion ($97 billion) austerity package. The Free Democrats, her conservatives' new coalition partners, had emerged from 11 years in opposition last year after wooing voters with pledges of big tax cuts.

The economy minister, a Free Democrat, last week rejected Opel's bid for government aid. Merkel said that wasn't the "last word," then offered little real alternative.

Meanwhile, she sought unsuccessfully to quell complaints in her own party that the austerity package included no tax hikes for the rich - complaints that annoyed the Free Democrats. Other nasty squabbles have arisen over the future of nuclear power stations and military conscription, reform of the health insurance system and aiding General Motors Co.'s Opel unit. President Horst Koehler's sudden resignation last month opened up a new front for Merkel.

The opposition has nominated a candidate more inspiring that the one picked by coalition leaders, who now face an unexpected struggle to get their man elected - giving the June 30 presidential vote a symbolic weight far exceeding the actual importance of the mostly ceremonial post.

Ironically, it seems Merkel found it easier to govern over four years in an unwieldy "grand coalition" with Social Democrats than with the more ideologically compatible Free Democrats, with whom she teamed up after elections eight months ago.

The right-left coalition established after a tied 2005 vote had cemented Merkel's reputation as a competent, pragmatic leader. But the free-market Free Democrats are her conservatives' traditional partners, and most Germans seemed to think the alliance established last year was better placed that its predecessor to foster economic growth.

In the presidential vote, Merkel needs to prevent disgruntled members of her coalition from supporting a widely respected and charismatic opposition candidate, former East German democracy activist Joachim Gauck.

Merkel nominated a colorless state governor - Christian Wulff, a deputy leader of her conservative Christian Democrats. The government should have a majority in the assembly that elects the president but several Free Democrats have voiced admiration for Gauck, who for years headed the agency that oversees the files of East Germany's secret police.

Unity in electing Wulff is "the signal that they must send to say, 'OK, we had a crisis and it's over now,"' said Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University.

"I would say that if he doesn't get a majority, the coalition will fall apart," he added. A failure for Wulff would be a major rebuff for Merkel and signal that the coalition is unable to agree on even basic issues.

The weekly Der Spiegel had a simple message for the bickering alliance on its front cover this week: "Stop It!" Joerg-Uwe Hahn, a regional official with the junior coalition party, said in a weekend newspaper interview that "either we get our act together in Berlin or it will be over for the coalition soon." That still seems improbable, but no longer unthinkable: two recent polls found that a majority believe the government won't serve out its four-year term. A collapse likely would lead to early elections and deepen drift in Germany, with polls pointing to an indecisive result.

Last month, the coalition lost a bellwether election in Germany's most populous state following months of bickering over the tax cuts that the Free Democrats championed and many in Merkel's conservative party questioned from the start.
Merkel has been hurt by her own tendency to show a light leadership touch, letting disputes resolve themselves before making decisions.

Recent attempts to impose order looked ineffective. On the weekend, she made a new appeal to the coalition to close ranks, declaring that "we must offer people reliability in difficult times."

The opposition Social Democrats raised the prospect of new elections. Leader Sigmar Gabriel said that would be the only option if Merkel's alliance parts ways, telling the daily Tagesspiegel that his party won't simply form a new "grand coalition" with hers if the current government fails.

A glance at recent polls may help dissuade dissenters from taking the risk. They show the Free Democrats' support, in particular, down sharply from nearly 15 percent in last year's election to as little as 5 percent now. The Social Democrats remain weak after a bad defeat last year, polling below 30 percent.

The coalition parties would "clearly get the blame for these early elections and be punished" by voters, Niedermayer said. One advantage for Merkel is that the center-left is divided: the Social Democrats and allied Greens are still too estranged from the hard-left Left Party to form a government together. And while Merkel's personal popularity has slipped recently, she remains ahead of opposition leaders.

The vice chancellor, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, sought to brush aside doubts over the government's future after a weekend of bruising headlines.

"This coalition has a clear majority and an equally clear mandate to govern," he told the daily Bild's Monday edition. "I don't want to gloss over anything, but we are looking forward."

First Published: Jun 15, 2010 20:40 IST