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Merkel keeps her cool

Bernd Grässler / slk January 20, 2013

Sunday's (20.01.2013) regional polls in the state of Lower Saxony have been billed as a crucial test prior to Germany's national elections. The outcome could predict who will control the chancellery come September.

Woman walking past election billboards Foto: Nigel Treblin/dapd
Image: dapd

Of course the state elections in Lower Saxony were "hugely important" to him, said Peer Steinbrück, the chancellor candidate for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The challenger of incumbent Angela Merkel badly needs a second wind to carry him through the political marathon that ends with the federal elections in September.

For a long time, it appeared that Steinbrück would be able to deliver a victory in Lower Saxony, and thereby secure a majority for the Social Democrats and the Green Party in the upper house of the federal parliament, the Bundestag. The Social Democrats were so confident of their lead in the polls that they even began announcing federal legislative initiatives.

But the Social Democrats may have spoken too soon. Their once clear advantage over the incumbent conservative-liberal coalition in Lower Saxony, made up of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), has turned into a horse race.

Preliminary results published by the public broadcaster ZDF on Sunday (20.01.2013) evening point to a narrow draw between the ruling coalition and the opposition.

Peer Steinbrueck in Hanover Foto: Clemens Bilan/dapd
Peer Steinbrück: Heading for an election headache?Image: dapd

Should the Social Democrats prove unable to oust the incumbent David McAllister (CDU) from power, then Steinbrück will likely take the heat. Critics would be quick to place the blame his most recent gaffes, including a scandal over the 1.25 million euros ($1,67 million) he made giving speeches to corporations and a recent call for the chancellor's 200,000-euro ($267,000) salary to be raised.

The SPD says that it will stick with Steinbrück as chancellor candidate. But as the elections in Lower Saxony approach, both the Social Democrats - as well as their opponents - have reason to be worried.

FDP and Left Party fight for survival

In the last election in Lower Saxony, the socialist Left Party won representation there for the first time, signaling that they were successfully expanding westward from their stronghold in east Germany. But this time around, the Left Party may fall short of the five percent of the vote needed to win representation in Lower Saxony's parliament. This would indicate an end to their westward expansion and a retreat to their east German base.

Sunday's election may well be a day of reckoning for FDP chairman, Philip Rösler. Although once considered a young rising star within the pro-business party, many of Rösler's comrades now consider him a weak leader. Behind closed doors, they are sharpening their knives, waiting for the moment to dispose of him politically.

Philipp Roesler in Berlin Foto: Gero Breloer/AP/dapd
Philipp Rösler: Will he be in or out?Image: AP

The wrong direction?

Many political observers in Germany are predicating that if the FDP loses its representation in Lower Saxony, it could be kicked out of the federal parliament for the first time in the history of post-war Germany. But it may be too early to write off the FDP. During the regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower-Saxony in 2012, the party was thought to be dead in the water. But thanks to strong candidates, the FDP was able to bounce back and win more than 8 percent of the vote in both cases.

The party is also banking on a peculiarity of German electoral law. Germans cast two ballots in elections, one for directly elected candidates and a second for party lists. Many supporters of Merkel's CDU could cast their second vote for the FDP and thereby give the party the boost it needs to keep its representation in parliament.

Merkel in good spirits

In that case, the conservative-liberal coalition with Premier David McAllister at its helm could continue governing in Lower Saxony. McAllister, the child of a Scottish-German marriage, can currently count on securing around 40 percent of the vote. Should McAllister's coalition lose on Sunday due to the weakness of the FDP, he could be compensated with a position in Berlin. There are rumors that he could replace Education Minister Anette Schavan, who is currently in hot water over allegations that she plagiarized parts of her doctoral thesis.

During the campaign in Lower Saxony, Chancellor Merkel has been in good spirits, stressing how much she has enjoyed hitting the campaign trail with McAllister. Merkel is calm for good reason. Even if the conservative-liberal coalition is ousted in Lower Saxony, her popularity is unlikely to suffer. Her candidate, McAllister, is likely to bring in a good result. And the problems that have plagued the CDU-FDP partnership lie largely with the FDP. As the leader of Germany's strongest party, Merkel will be able to reach out to parties other than the FDP to secure a third term as chancellor.