Germany: Merkel wins, but must seek new coalition ally

BERLIN, Germany — In a better-than-expected performance, incumbent Angela Merkel won enough votes in Sunday’s election to earn another term as Germany’s chancellor, but narrowly missed an absolute majority, official results show.

“We can all celebrate tonight,” Merkel told jubilant supporters at her Christian Democratic Union (CDU)’s Berlin headquarters after the poll numbers were unveiled. “This is a super result.”

The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union or CSU, won 41.5 percent of votes, leaving them just a few seats short of forming a government alone. However, the ouster of its junior ally the Free Democratic Party (FDP) means Merkel’s conservative bloc will most likely be forced to join hands with the Greens or form a so-called “grand coalition” with the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), who, with 25.7 percent, earned the second-largest share of the vote.

Both the FDP, with 4.8 percent, and the euroskeptic Alternative for Deutschland, with 4.7 percent, failed to earn the 5 percent of the popular vote needed to gain seats in parliament under proportional representation. Moreover, Merkel has broad ideological differences with the Left and the Greens, which earned 8.6 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively.

The most likely post-poll scenario therefore looks to be a grand coalition between Merkel’s CDU and Peer Steinbrueck’s SPD. Merkel cobbled together a government in her first term in 2005 with the same joining of forces.

“A [grand coalition] is always bad for real democracy,” 28-year-old Linda, a guest at the SPD’s election party at Willy Brandt Haus in Berlin, told GlobalPost.

“[With no real opposition] there’s no real discussion. There’s no culture of debate.”

Some say a grand coalition could mean an end to severe austerity policies in Germany, as the SPD believes constricting spending has also stymied growth. But Merkel’s strong showing at the polls will give her added ability to resist any dilution of her vision. That won’t likely mean any big changes in Germany’s policy toward Europe, but it will likely mean further domestic economic reforms of the sort undertaken by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, according to Timothy Hellwig, director of the Institute for European Studies at Indiana University.

“The large margin of victory for Merkel and the Christian Democrats can be taken as an endorsement for her steady hand and the wheel, steering Germany through very difficult economic times,” Hellwig told GlobalPost.

However, there are other factors in the mix.

First, Steinbrueck earlier said he will not personally participate in a grand coalition — though he appeared more willing in a televised, post-poll round table. If he sticks to his guns, this week’s horse trading may begin with internal SPD wrangling over who might lead the government in partnership with Merkel. The name most likely to pop up first is Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who led the SPD during the earlier grand coalition.

Most recently leader of the opposition in the Bundestag, Steinmeier was Merkel’s foreign minister from 2005 to 2009 and vice chancellor from 2007 to 2009.

Despite its failure to gain seats, the AfD’s strong showing could also add weight to euroskeptics within Merkel’s camp, according to Indiana University’s Hellwig, and should should send a warning signal not to back down on a conservative, highly conditionalized policy for helping debt-stricken European countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal.

The AfD had advocated ending future bailouts for struggling euro zone members, and encouraging those countries to give up their membership. Instead of the current system, the party proposed a two-track Europe, with parallel currencies that would reflect the popular German view that northern countries tend to be productive and southern ones financially irresponsible.

Already, small opposition groups have succeeded in delaying and frustrating stimulus efforts in the past — bringing the question of German contributions to European Union aid measures to the country’s constitutional court, for instance.

“AfD’s strong showing establishes beyond much doubt that the anti-Europe message has a non-trivial number of sympathizers in what has arguably been Europe’s most pro-European country,” Hellwig said.

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