Merkel cruising to second term, but in a new coalition?

25th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

The real question in Sunday’s elections is whether the German leader can form a centre-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats or whether she will be forced into another unwieldy "grand coalition" with her chief rivals, the Social Democrats.

Berlin -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks certain to sail to a second term in Sunday's general election but suspense is growing as to whether she can link up with her preferred partners.

Merkel, the first woman to lead Europe's biggest nation and its most powerful economy, has won praise at home and abroad over the last four years for steady leadership, particularly through Germany's worst postwar recession.

And as Europe prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall in November, Merkel's rise as the first German leader from the former communist east reflects a growing degree of unity in the long-divided country.

Merkel's conservative Christian Union bloc (CDU/CSU) enjoys a sizeable albeit shrinking lead in the polls and her victory on election night looks virtually assured.

But the real question will be whether she can form a centre-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), or whether she will be forced into another unwieldy "grand coalition" with her chief rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD).

"The grand coalition has done good work but now it is time, in the worst crisis of the last 60 years, to use everything at our disposal to assure fresh economic growth," she told Thursday's issue of the daily Frankfurter Rundschau, explaining her preference for the FDP.

A poll released Wednesday showed the CDU/CSU at 34-35 percent, with the FDP at 12-13 percent.

That means Merkel will be on tenterhooks to see whether the conservatives' score can, under Germany's complex electoral arithmetic, give her a ruling majority in parliament.

If not, the most likely alternative is another left-right coalition with the SPD, Germany's oldest political outfit and one of two "people's parties" that has led coalitions in the postwar era.

But the SPD, with Merkel's foreign minister and vice-chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier as its candidate, has been embroiled in a bitter internal struggle between centrist reformers and leftists and is scoring a meagre 26-27 percent.

They have next to no chance of forming a coalition with their favoured partners, the Greens, who are drawing 10-11 percent.

But with more than one-quarter of the 62-million-strong electorate reportedly still undecided, there is still plenty of room for surprises.

"The number (of undecided voters) has been growing from election to election, in every social category, but it has never been this high so close to the election," said political scientist Richard Stoess at Berlin's Free University, citing the blurring differences between the top parties.

Steinmeier sees that factor as his chance Sunday.

"Without a strong SPD in Angela Merkel's government, things would have been very different," he told a recent rally in the southwestern city of Stuttgart.

"Tell that to your friends who are undecided!"

Merkel has moved her conservative party steadily to the left in her first term in power but the next kingmaker will have a significant say in which tack the government takes.

The FDP would pressure her to push through deep tax cuts to kickstart the still sluggish economy, sign off on her plans to extend the life of the country's 17 nuclear reactors and likely resist efforts by Merkel, a former environment minister, to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

There are indications that Merkel would find distinct advantages in another grand coalition.

She has gone out of her way in recent weeks to praise SPD Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, with whom she is jetting off to the G20 summit in Pittsburgh Thursday, over his handling of the economic crisis.

Another grand coalition would see clashes over nuclear power, with the SPD demanding the country continue on a course to mothball the reactors by 2020, as well as its calls for a national minimum wage, which the conservatives oppose.

But the parties largely agree on climate protection and both Merkel and Steinmeier have issued ringing calls for Germany to stay the course in war-ravaged Afghanistan, where the country has the third biggest foreign contingent with some 4,200 troops.

Deborah Cole/AFP/Expatica

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