Angela Merkel's Second Chance
German voters made a clear decision in their federal election last Sunday. As expected, Chancellor Angela Merkel can stay in office with her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), by far the strongest party with 33.8 percent of the vote, which is even less than the already disappointing result of the last election (35.4 percent)-a rather unglamorous victory. Her queen-maker, future coalition partner, and real winner of the election was Guido Westerwelle, the probable future foreign minister, with his liberal, business-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP) (14.6 percent).
The disastrous result for Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) with 23 percent, an all time low since 1949, has plunged a party with a great 146-year history into an existential crisis about its future. These figures, including the new records for the two smaller opposition parties, the Greens (10.7 percent) and the Left Party (11.9 percent), with the lowest election participation in Germany ever, reflect the profound discontent of the German electorate with the former grand coalition of the CDU and SPD. The business wing of the CDU and its traditionalist voters, disaffected with Merkel's SPD-driven bail-out policy for banks and companies in trouble, and with her purely pragmatic cooperation with the SPD on almost every policy issue, moved to the FDP. Many core voters of the SPD, in contrast, frustrated by the Realpolitik of the party's leadership in government, shifted to the Left, or didn't vote at all.
German voters like continuity and, if there has to be change, they prefer it in incremental slices. Thus, the policy of the new government will differ from the former one only in nuances, and domestic policy issues like health care, tax reform, and nuclear policy will be at the forefront; there will be far less disagreement on foreign policy. As the German free market economy model in its original concept always included a strong commitment to social welfare policies, there will be, even with the FDP in government, only a slight shift in the balance between a free market economic policy and a state-oriented social policy.
Governing will become much more difficult for Merkel-that is the main difference. There will be fierce policy debates about social subsidies and tax cuts between an opposition that is much larger than before (the Greens, an SPD torn between its realist and its left wing, and the Left Party) and, in their view, a neoliberal CDU-FDP government. In the four years of grand coalition government, the chancellor was able to kill any dispute by pointing out that it was likely to endanger the survival of the coalition. This had the added benefit of making her look maternal and above the fray. But these times are over. Merkel now has to show which policy she really stands for-the market economy-oriented policy that she campaigned for in 2005 or the social policy of the Social Democrats that she accepted broadly later. Simply put, she has no other choice than to step into the role of chancellor and to lead. That is what her party-and the public-now expects of her.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.