Fear of Contagion: Merkel Steps Back from Coalition Partner FDP

February 2nd, 2013

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Spiegel Staff, January 31, 2013.

Following her party’s failure in a major state election, Chancellor Angela Merkel is distancing herself from her junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats. It is a risky move, and could indicate that she is aiming at a partnership with the opposition Social Democrats.  

Vows of loyalty tend to have a limited shelf life with Angela Merkel. Just four months ago, the German chancellor was still gushing about the things her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) shared in common with its junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). No other political force, she said, was as closely related to the Christian Democrats as the FDP. “That’s why I pushed for this coalition, and that’s why I will do it again,” she said.

Now, though, following her party’s election setback on Jan. 20 in Lower Saxony, Merkel has taken a different tone — one that includes not a whiff of sympathy. A week ago Monday, she announced an election campaign in which each party “would fight for itself and for its votes.”

Merkel’s CDU is in a state of shock. With its election defeat in Lower Saxony, it has not only lost control of yet another major German state, after stinging losses in North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein. It has also lost a state leader in outgoing Governor David McAllister whom many in the party considered to have leadership potential for the era after Merkel. With a clear opposition majority now in Germany’s upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, Merkel’s government could now have trouble passing new laws.

It is not a good start to the election year. Indeed, despite Merkel’s high popularity rankings and her party’s healthy state in polls, it is conceivable from today’s vantage point that Merkel could lose power when Germans go to the polls, which is tentatively scheduled to happen on Sept. 22.

Only One Party to Blame: … //

… Conservatives Split over Coalition Partner:

This week, leaders of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), with which it shares power in the federal government, are meeting to discuss a possible strategy for the election year. Within the CSU camp, leaders are pushing for the Union, as the CDU/CSU grouping at the national level is referred to, to campaign hard against the SPD and Greens. And what about the FDP? It’s better to ignore the party, they argue. CSU General Secretary Alexander Dobrindt has also warned the FDP against seeking to gain conservative votes in the way it did in Lower Saxony in order to save its seats in parliament.

Meanwhile, one of Merkel’s closest allies in the Christian Democratic Union, Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, is also calling for the party to be tough in its dealings with the FDP. In the Lower Saxony vote, von der Leyen noted, the parties merely swapped votes. “That’s not enough. The Union and the FDP need to attract voters beyond their own political bases,” she says.

The labor minister would like to see the party aggressively court SPD voters, favoring in particular the introduction of a national minimum wage (which Germany does not have) and a gender quota. Such positions are no longer anethema to a CDU which has slid to the left in recent years. “It is within easy reach, and we must have equity,” von der Leyen says. “That’s why the message can’t be (economic) ‘growth’ alone.” But the FDP has been adamently opposed to such policies and compromise has been impossible.

In addition, in multiple interviews given after the Lower Saxony debacle, CDU politicians have said they would like to distance the party in the campaign from the somewhat liberatarian FDP’s free market policies and instead promote the CDU’s vision of a social market economy. The slogan of the CDU’s most recent party congress at the end of 2012 was, “A Strong Germany — Opportunities for all.” The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper wrote that this suggested a party campaign that would focus on both a “prosperous economy and social policies” for average Germans, placing the party even closer to the positions held by the center-left SPD.

Is Merkel Steering Towards the SPD?

Frustration with the FDP is so great at this point that many in the CDU favor the model adopted by the party in the southwestern German state of Saarland. A year ago, Governor Annegret Kram-Karrenbauer of the CDU kicked the chaotic state chapter of the FDP out of her government and formed a new coalition with the SPD. This time, the politician is warning against relying on the FDP even at the national level. “We need to focus on our own strengths,” she said.

But this path isn’t uncontroversial either. The further the CDU distances itself from the FDP and emphasizes a “social” element, the louder the calls are likely to grow that Merkel is trying to subtly steer a course towards a grand coalition.

The economic wing of the CDU is anathema to another alliance with the SPD. “Instead of chasing after voters from the SPD and the Greens,” CDU member and Saxony Governor Stanislaw Tillich said, “we should take care of the people who have turned their backs on us in (recent) years.”
Günther Oettinger, the EU’s energy commissioner and a senior member of Merkel’s CDU, offered similar sentiment, arguing it would be wrong to run an anti-FDP campaign.

“Those who want to see Merkel as chancellor need the Union and the FDP,” he said.
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Major Setback for Merkel: Last-Minute Win for Germany’s SPD and Greens, on Spiegel Online International, January 21, 2013.

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