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Opinion: Merkel's victory

Volker Wagener / nh
September 23, 2013

Trust is something like a stable currency in times of crisis. Angela Merkel has her voters’ trust. But the degree is astonishing. Her election victory has changed Germany’s political landscape, says DW’s Volker Wagener.


No experiments please. Especially not in times of crisis. If many people think this way and act accordingly when they're standing in the election booth – then that's how victory can become a triumph. The CDU and Angela Merkel received close to an additional eight percent of votes, the FDP was ‘atomized', and the Left and Green parties both lost ground. That's the summary of Angela Merkel's political 'coup' from Sunday's election.

Deutsche Welle's Volker Wagener (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen)
DW's Volker WagenerImage: DW

Let's also not forget that – almost in passing – she widened the gap between her CDU and Social Democrats (SPD) by an additional five percentage points. What does she have that her political opponents lack?

When a term in office becomes an era

In Germany, Konrad Adenauer (CDU) was the only chancellor to ever achieve an absolute majority. That was back in 1957. Merkel's CDU came very close to that result on Sunday. But Merkel is probably glad to have missed it, because a narrow majority would have had paradoxical implicatons. In the ranks of her conservative union, there are at least two firm critics of Merkel's eurozone crisis management. They would have turned this phenomenal election result into four shaky years. That's why Angela Merkel will now seize the opportunity to silence the last remaining resistance from her own party by forming a grand coalition with the SPD.

That constellation remains the most probable one. With a two-thirds majority, Merkel could achieve big things. That's good news for the implementation of reforms – and bad for democracy. Opposition in the Bundestag would be reduced to a paltry two eight-percent parties (the Left and Greens). In short, Merkel's term in office has clearly turned into an era.

The SPD's dilemma

The question is: Does the SPD want to become a part of this era, and if so, what role will it play? When the SPD was the CDU's junior partner in the coalition between 2005 and 2009, the party had to learn that successful and friction-free collaboration doesn't pay off when you're the number two in the government.

After four years of Merkel's dominance, the SPD got its historically worst result in the 2009 elections. This time around, by the way, it was the party's second-worst result with just two and a half percentage points above the 2009 result. So the SPD would be ill-advised to form a grand coalition this time. But Franz Müntefering of all people, the SPD's former chairman and man behind the party's campaign strategy, raised the exact opposite argument: “Being in the opposition is nonsense” is his credo. The SPD, therefore, will probably opt for participation – at the highest price possible.

Peer Steinbrück would be crucial in the cabinet. He is a finance expert. That gives him excellent credentials to take over responsibility in the middle of the raging euro and debt crisis storm. But he wants to be asked to join – and it would be best if Merkel did it herself. The two do get along, after all.

The FDP's political pulverization

One party is to blame for the difficult situation the SPD finds itself in – torn between election defeat and government participation. That is Germany's liberal Free Democratic Party, FDP. The party used to stand for civil rights, small government, personal freedoms and was a staunch defender of business. But it has lost its profile, and in such a consistent and brutal manner that it was not only kicked out of government, but also out of parliament altogether.

The FDP demanded simpler tax codes as a goal for the term it served together with the CDU between 2009 and 2013. And it generously promised tax reductions on top of that. In the end, it failed to deliver on both of these issues.

The meager 4.8 percent the FDP garnered in the elections is now regarded as the party's death sentence. Liberal ideas have now disappeared from the German parliament. Some speak of a watershed. No – you have to call it a political tsunami. The party now desperately needs two things: new personnel and a new program which does not only attract dentists and lawyers.

But election night has taught us another thing: it's time for new political alliances. It is only a question of time before a coalition between the conservative CDU/CSU and the Greens at the federal level will have lost its too-risky-to-try image.

But neither Merkel and her CDU, nor the Greens, have the time or the goodwill that would be needed to form a conservative-Green coalition now. The two parties' respective self-image and the people in charge are not quite ready for it yet.

And the same goes for the Left party. It is probably the last time that a coalition between the SPD, the Left Party and the Greens is considered an absolute taboo in Germany. Numerically, those three taken together could snatch the scepter away from Merkel. If they dared. And if they thought voters would buy it. But one thing is clear from Sunday's German election: The political landscape has changed for some time to come.

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