international analysis and commentary

Pragmatic Chancellor Merkel, warming up for reelection

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In office since November 2005, Angela Merkel is striving for her third political mandate as German Chancellor. Four months ahead of Germany’s federal elections, the Christian Democratic leader has yet to enter into the real electoral campaign – not that she is expected to battle harshly for voter support. The latest Deutschlandtrend polls found Ms. Merkel’s CDU/CSU ranking high with a comfortable 39% of voter support, almost fourteen points above the SPD which is stuck in a deep credibility crisis and holding only 25%. As the same polls showed, Ms. Merkel, together with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, is still the most popular politician in Germany with more than 65% of voters approving her political line. When asked to name the major problems obstructing the Social Democratic Party’s path to victory, 66% of people polled said that the CDU is favored by having as its candidate an outstanding Chancellor; 70% of the respondents said that there has been no clarity insofar as to how the SPD is willing to tackle the euro crisis. Both factors are indeed playing a leading role in hindering the center-left coalition to gain pace in the polls.

In less than half a year since the nomination of Peer Steinbrück as the SPD candidate for the Chancellery, Ms. Merkel has almost been able to get rid of him politically without even making a single move. Her strategy has been to not comment on every attack coming from her challenger. In any case, the SPD has been more or less backing the Christian-Liberal government in its sovereign debt crisis management.

In the meantime, Mr. Steinbrück succeeded in hurting himself mainly because he came across, and still comes across, as both arrogant and gaffe-prone. Internal contrasts with his Social Democratic Party colleagues also played a role in the collapse of his approval ratings. A good example of this outrageous suicide strategy is the recent uproar created by Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD chairman, who called for a nationwide speed limit on German Autobahns. Albeit the measure would fit the regulation-friendly party program, Gabriel forgot how sensitive this topic is in Germany. He was eventually forced to officially withdraw his proposal after Mr. Steinbrück’s irritated denial. After being enthusiastically voted by party delegates in April, the whole election program now seems to be in question. In a Handelsblatt interview, Mr. Gabriel announced the launch of a “new” agenda, whose content is a rather moderate version of the quite radical one deliberated during the party conference. In the 150th anniversary since its foundation, the SPD is still struggling with its future. The famous reforms, thanks to which Chancellor Schröder brought about a major change in the German welfare state and labor market, are still controversial, and many party members consider the Schröder era as a painful parenthesis. Now they want the old social democracy back, a party for the little people and the workers. In the speech delivered in front of the party conference, Mr. Steinbrück tried to convince the audience he was the right man for restoring the SPD’s glorious past by promising a federal minimum wage, equal pay for men and women, tougher rules for financial markets and higher taxes for top income earners. All measures which would be very much appreciated by the core of the social democratic voters if implemented. However, since the Greens are also pledging for more taxes to finance spending in education and social affairs, German citizens are starting to fear a widespread tax increase.

Realizing that elections are won by capturing the center of the political spectrum, Ms. Merkel and her allies deem that tax hikes are insofar unnecessary, since the budget situation is still relatively good. The CDU/CSU has not already unveiled its election program. However, if confirmed in office, the Christian-Liberal coalition is likely not to ask for tax breaks, as it did four years ago. Even the FDP, the pro-market party of Vice-Chancellor Philipp Rösler, almost abandoned this propaganda issue, knowing that with Ms. Merkel as Chancellor, no audacious reform of the fiscal system is going to take place. Nothing different can be said as regards liberalization and privatization efforts. As long as these measures are not considered necessary for retaining power, Ms. Merkel will not resort to them. As everyone knows, the Chancellor is not a courageous leader at all. Her “wait and see” strategy might therefore be irritating, but it has proved to be effective – at least for her. She has not solved any problem through forceful and longsighted decisions, neither in the financial crisis nor in the present one. In an era of post-ideological politics, Ms. Merkel is accustomed to buying time and, if necessary, changing her mind. And this is exactly what she has done in several circumstances, often putting off balance both her allies and her opponents. On the whole, the fact that the Chancellor allegedly works in a pragmatic way is quite reassuring for most Germans, alleviating the proverbial German Angst in the last four years. And there is no reason why Germans should now not confirm Angela Merkel her for the third time.