Cheerless home front awaits Angela Merkel

2nd July 2007, Comments 0 comments

2 July 2007, BERLIN (AP) _ Chancellor Angela Merkel polished her reputation for squeezing a deal from the toughest customers in six months leading the European Union and the Group of Eight, even earning herself the media title "Miss World."

2 July 2007

BERLIN (AP) _ Chancellor Angela Merkel polished her reputation for squeezing a deal from the toughest customers in six months leading the European Union and the Group of Eight, even earning herself the media title "Miss World."

But as Germany rolls up the red carpets, the conservative Merkel returns to a fractious coalition government where good will has largely evaporated, with her center-left No. 2 openly venting anger.

The "grand coalition" of rivals that emerged from an indecisive 2005 election has more than two years left before the next vote is due. But the loveless marriage between Merkel's Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats looks tired and short of ideas how to fill its remaining time.

Merkel last week urged unity, arguing that the coalition should be "concentrating on our own work, in order to fulfill citizens' wishes and expectations ... then we will have success _ and not just one party in the government, but both parties."

She told Deutsche Welle television that "the coalition still has plenty to do," such as encouraging profit-sharing for German workers and "bringing together energy policy and climate protection."

Still, expectations are low _ even as Merkel basks in the glow of Germany's European Union presidency, which ended Saturday, and June's German-hosted G-8 summit.

The mass-circulation Bild daily declared her "Miss World" after a reluctant U.S. President George W. Bush joined the G-8's call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She impressed again by overcoming Polish resistance to unblock an impasse over a new EU treaty to replace its failed constitution.

At home, by contrast, her coalition was stuck in a long, ill-tempered argument about Social Democratic calls for a minimum wage, rejected by Merkel's party.

Vice Chancellor Franz Muentefering, a Social Democrat, voiced "anger and indignation" and made clear his party would use the issue at the next election, due in 2009.

"The supply of things in common has become very, very thin, and I think both partners have mentally adjusted to slowly beginning the election campaign," said Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University.

"It is going to be very difficult to take on any big project and carry it through sensibly."

With the economy doing well, Social Democrats' enthusiasm for pushing through further painful reforms is lessened by poor poll ratings and an increasingly bold challenge from The Left, an alliance of ex-communists and disgruntled ex-Social Democrats.

Social Democratic chairman Kurt Beck recently accused Merkel's party of "neoliberalism" _ excessive reliance on free markets. However, his efforts to sharpen his own party's profile do not appear to be impressing traditional left-wing supporters or boosting his own dismal ratings.

Over the past two years, his party's ministers have pushed through measures such as an increase in the retirement age to 67 from 65 and a cut in business taxes.

The Left's co-leader, Oskar Lafontaine, says that "we are the party of the social state."

Lafontaine _ a former Social Democratic chairman _ charged last month that reforms over recent years have "destroyed a secure social state that gave many in Germany support and security," and also has appealed to pacifists with calls to withdraw German troops from Afghanistan.

Lafontaine's party won its first seats in a state legislature in former West Germany in this year's only regional election, in Bremen. That also saw the Social Democrats abandon a regional "grand coalition" in favor of a center-left alliance with the Greens, with whom Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder previously ran Germany.

However, few believe anyone is about to kill off the national coalition.

"They both have no choice but to stay together until the end" of the government's mandate in 2009, Niedermayer said. "I believe very strongly that whoever left the coalition would be punished by voters."

A poll of 2,501 people by the Forsa agency, conducted June 18-22, put support for Merkel's conservatives at 39 percent and the Social Democrats at only 24 percent _ their worst since the 2005 election. It gave The Left 13 percent and the two other opposition parties _ the Greens and business-friendly Free Democrats _ 10 percent each.

Asked whether they would choose Merkel or Beck in a direct vote, the incumbent led by 55 percent to 17 _ even, Forsa said, leading among Social Democrat supporters. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Merkel likely will be wary after her large lead before the 2005 election virtually disappeared. Some other polls have given her party leads of less than 10 points.

Niedermayer said that believing the conservatives can simply hold their lead and win in 2009 "is an illusion because voters are so flexible nowadays." It also is unclear whether her foreign-policy successes will count in two years

"We don't need just a 'Miss World' in the chancellery, but above all a 'Miss Germany' who does her German homework," Guido Westerwelle, the Free Democrats' leader, said recently.


Subject German news

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