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Germany

Experts put coalition's opinion poll collapse in context

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is continuing to freefall in the opinion polls, despite a better-than-expected economic recovery. But political experts say the opposition shouldn't celebrate just yet.

Guido Westerwelle and Angela Merkel in parliament

Merkel is hoping that her luck will turn in the autumn

Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) has now been overtaken for the first time by a center-left opposition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens.

According to the latest opinion poll from state broadcaster ARD, the Social Democrat-Green partnership would get 45 percent of the vote, while the CDU-FDP would barely scrape together 38 percent.

For the SPD and Greens, this is a leap of more than 10 percent compared to last September's general election results, while the CDU and FDP have slipped back by more or less the same amount.

The polls are damning: as many as 83 percent of the population are either "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with the government's performance.

Routine answers

Greek euro coin in a wrench

Bailing out Greece to save the euro badly damaged Merkel's popularity

The chancellor is well-practiced in dealing with these figures. At her pre-holiday press conference she dismissed all negative numbers as a natural consequence of the difficult decisions her government has had to make, while admitting that the coalition's perennial in-fighting had undermined the government.

"From saving the euro to other measures we took, they are not decisions that exactly help in the opinion polls," she told reporters. "We already talked about this, and I think that often the tone was occasionally unacceptable. But I think the coalition has pulled itself together a little."

That Merkel's second term has had a nightmarish beginning can hardly be denied. The forced bailout of Greece was hugely damaging, while the departure of six Christian Democratic state premiers - all for very good and very different reasons - has given the impression of instability at the top of Merkel's party.

The economy fallacy

The most surprising thing about the latest poll ratings is that they completely overturn the received wisdom about the relationship between the economy and government popularity. The political commentator Joerg Schoenenborn sums up the situation.

"We have a rather divided collective opinion," he said. "On the one hand, our polls confirm that the recovery is there and people are feeling it. They are optimistic and expect the recovery to hold. On the other hand, the government is making zero profit from that."

Gerhard Schroeder

Gerhard Schroeder faced similar poll crises in 1999 and 2002

Obviously, one consequence of this black hole in the ratings is that the opposition is suddenly riding a new high. For the first time since 2002, the SPD and the Green party have a lead in the opinion polls that would win them a general election.

This is particularly heartening for the Social Democrats, who were devastated in last September's election. In 10 short months, and without having to do much, they have leapt nine points in polls, and are now level with Merkel's party on 31 percent.

But as political scientist Juergen Falter points out, such figures are hardly unprecedented. "This happened in 1998," he explained. "In 1999, the Social Democrat/Green coalition was looking similarly abysmal, and it was only the donations scandal of the CDU and Helmut Kohl that turned the mood around. So these kinds of swings are not really that unusual."

And yet, history aside, Merkel must be at least slightly perturbed by how persistent this downward trend is turning out to be. Come autumn, her political friends and foes will expect her to return from holiday in a fighting mood.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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