Merkel set to rally party ahead of 2013 election
Germany's Angela Merkel will rally the rank-and-file of her conservative party at its annual congress Tuesday, eyeing a third term as chancellor of Europe's top economy in elections next year.
Buoyed from her position as the country's most popular politician, Merkel, 58, takes the podium at her ruling Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) two-day conference in the northern city of Hanover.
While little suspense is expected from the two days of debates, the length of her standing ovation from delegates, as well as how thunderously she is re-elected head of the party, are likely to be closely watched.
Merkel, who enjoys a level of domestic popularity unseen by any post-war German leader before her, is seen as the party's trump card in its re-election bid, expected to take place in September.
When she was last re-elected party leader unopposed two years ago, she won 90.4 percent of the vote, her lowest since 2004, amid fears she could lose more support if the party fared badly in the 2011 "super election year".
The party did suffer stinging losses in state votes that year and in early 2012, but Merkel has continued to go from strength to strength in polls measuring voter approval of her handling of the eurozone debt crisis.
"German voters are happy with Mrs Merkel because the majority believe that she is protecting their interests from the needs and desires of other countries," political scientist Gero Neugebauer, of Berlin's Free University, said.
Less than a year before Germans go to the polls -- expected on September 22 -- however, the CDU faced criticism for an agenda at its annual party conference seen as light on content over personality.
A cartoon in Monday's Tagesspiegel daily depicted the "CDU programme" showing the profile of Merkel -- from the left, from the right, facing front, and nothing else.
Social issues, including putting gay couples on the same tax footing as heterosexual married ones, quotas for women at the top-end of business and mothers' pensions are expected to be the thorniest points of discussion.
"I see a deathly silence developing," warned political scientist Gerd Langguth in Monday's Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung.
"The CDU must however have more discussion on content to be electable," he warned.
Another problem on the horizon is the plunging fortunes of Merkel's current coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), who, surveys suggest, will struggle to cross the five-percent threshold to enter parliament.
Merkel said "it goes without saying" that she would hold talks with the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens if she was unable to form a coalition with the FDP.
After having led a "grand coalition" with the SPD from 2005 to 2009, she said in a weekend interview with Bild am Sonntag newspaper "it would be totally implausible if I said we are not talking with the SPD.
"However it remains the case that a grand coalition is not my wish, but rather the continuation of the Christian-Liberal government."
If Germans had the option to directly vote for candidates, 57 percent would re-elect Merkel while 28 percent would pick her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrueck, an Emnid poll for Focus news weekly showed Sunday.
Steinbrueck, 65, a former finance minister in the 2005-2009 "grand coalition" has been embroiled in a nagging fees-for-lectures debate since launching his campaign in September.
All eyes will be on a regional vote in Lower Saxony in January as an indicator of voter sentiment.
© 2012 AFP