Merkel still likely to win - but with which partner?

13th September 2005, Comments 0 comments

13 September 2005, BERLIN - Angela Merkel still leads opinion polls in the run-up to German elections Sunday, but Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is closing the gap and analysts see a close vote with the possible result being a clumsy grand coalition of both leaders' parties.

13 September 2005

BERLIN - Angela Merkel still leads opinion polls in the run-up to German elections Sunday, but Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is closing the gap and analysts see a close vote with the possible result being a clumsy grand coalition of both leaders' parties.

In two TV clashes Merkel has failed to counter Schroeder's claims that her Christian Democratic alliance's (CDU/CSU) tax and welfare reforms would fuel social divisions and benefit the rich.

Schroeder, who exudes confidence, has scored points for his smooth, combative and highly telegenic performances.

Nicknamed the "Comeback Kid" for past upset victories as in the 2002 general election, nobody underestimates the Chancellor. But time seems to be running out for another Schroeder turnaround by election day.

Merkel, a Protestant pastor's daughter from former East Germany, has performed better than expected but remains in a lesser media league compared to the wily Chancellor.

Nevertheless, she is still expected to win Sunday's election but may fall short of what is needed for her desired centre-right alliance with the Free Democrats (FDP).

Merkel's support has eroded with most polls showing her CDU/CSU-FDP no longer winning a majority in Germany's Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.

The CDU/CSU-FDP would currently win between 47.5 per cent and 49 per cent, according to Germany's top six polling agencies.

Schroeder's ruling Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens are at 39.9 per cent to 41.5 per cent, the polls show.

Given Schroeder's surge and the fact that the polls have a margin of error of up to plus or minus 3 percentage points, the election could end up a cliffhanger.

Indeed, in a freak development, if the vote is too close Germans may have to wait until the eastern city of Dresden votes on October 2 to know who their next leader will be. Dresden's voting was postponed after a rightist party candidate died earlier this month making it necessary to print up new ballot papers.

The tightening race and the fact that about 20 per cent of voters are still undecided mean Merkel may be handed a messy victory.

One worry is that her FDP partner will stumble and fail to clear the 5 per cent hurdle required to win seats in parliament under Germany's proportional representation system. The FDP has slipped and is currently between 6 per cent and 7 per cent.

Another problem for both Merkel and Schroeder is the appearance of a newly founded Left Party - a merger of former East Germany's post-communists and a western protest group.

A strong Left Party result could make it even more difficult for Merkel to secure a majority - but it is Schroeder's SPD which looks likely to lose the most votes to the new movement. The Left Party has, however, lost support and is now at 7 per cent to 8.9 per cent.

But Merkel's biggest problem is her party's own decline from a thumping majority in polls last spring to the current slim lead which means she could emerge on Sunday with just one option: a grand coalition with Schroeder's SPD as junior partner.

The Chancellor has made it clear he has no plans to stay on in such government and would retire from politics. Merkel used Monday's TV debate to underline "there will be no grand coalition."

Views on a grand coalition - which only ruled Germany once in the post-war era from 1966 to 1969 - vary greatly. Many observers regard it as a recipe for muddling through.

Others, however, point to the grand coalition of almost 40 years ago which put in place solid economic and budget reforms.

The big difference between this election and 1966, however, is that back then the big parties were determined to make such an alliance work.

In stark contrast, Merkel's and Schroeder's parties would, in effect, be dragged kicking and screaming into a grand coalition.

Political scientists Juergen Falter of the University of Mainz and Frank Decker at the University of Bonn warn any new marriage of two main parties is likely to be highly unstable.

"It's not a good start for cooperation if such an alliance is founded on the basis of a sheer emergency," said Decker, adding that this had not been the case in 1966.

Falter agrees and underlines that a grand coalition can only be successful if both parties see the need for cooperation to resolve a political logjam.

"If a grand coalition is forced into existence because no other majority is there then I would be pessimistic and see the danger of the lowest common (reform) denominator," he said.

And sweeping reforms are needed to cure Germany's 11.4 per cent unemployment and revive growth in Europe's biggest economy which remains the sick man of the eurozone.

Schroeder, who was first elected in 1998 with vows to cut the jobless rate, rashly told voters to toss him out if he failed. Last winter, unemployment soared to 5 million, the highest level since the 1930s.

Merkel, who is 51, talks tough on economic reforms. She pledges to cut income tax rates, close tax loopholes, slash bureaucracy, liberalise labour laws and give more money to families with children to boost a sagging birth-rate which among the lowest in Europe.

Schroeder counters by vowing to continue his reforms while being vague about concrete plans.

He has also repeatedly attacked Merkel for having backed the Iraq war. Schroeder led European opposition to the conflict.

For Chancellor Schroeder, who is 61, there appear to be two long-shot ways to cling to power.

Some analysts predict that if his SPD and Greens coalition partner along with the opposition Free Democrats together have a enough votes to keep him in office, he will try to win over the FDP to join his government.

Here the figures almost add up with polls showing the three parties at between 47 per cent to 48.5 per cent.

The FDP leader Guido Westerwelle has ruled out such an alliance but his party is known to be keen to return to power as kingmaker.

A second less likely option is that Schroeder's SPD seeks a coalition with the Left Party.

This has been ruled out by both the Chancellor and top SPD officials. Schroeder detests Left Party co-leader Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD chairman, who briefly served under him as finance minister before quitting.

Nevertheless, Schroeder's SPD already governs with the former East German communists - the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) - in eastern Mecklenburg-West Pommerania state and the city state of Berlin.

Berlin's SPD mayor, Klaus Wowereit, insists his government could be the model for a future national government.

But most analysts are still betting that Schroeder is finished.

Merkel looks likely to take the helm as Germany's first woman leader and the first leader from the eastern part of the nation since the 1990 reunification. The big question is: with whom will she rule?


Subject: German news

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