Can Merkel Make It? Germany's Likely Next Chancellor Is the Prisoner of Her Own Party. Reform? Shush. Don't Even Think about It

By Theil, Stefan | Newsweek International, August 29, 2005 | Go to article overview

Can Merkel Make It? Germany's Likely Next Chancellor Is the Prisoner of Her Own Party. Reform? Shush. Don't Even Think about It


Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International


Byline: Stefan Theil

Gerhard Schroeder was at it again. "Take the military options off the table," he roared at a campaign rally in Hannover. "We've all seen they're no good!"

Bashing George W. Bush worked the last time the German chancellor was locked in an uphill election battle, in 2002 on the eve of the Iraq war. So he was understandably tempted to try it again, this time hoping to ride to victory in next month's ballot by denouncing possible U.S. military action in Iran. And like last time, the salvo appeared to catch his opponent, now Angela Merkel, off guard. More than 80 percent of Germans support Schroeder's antiwar stance, she knew, and reject her own pro-U.S. foreign policy. What to do? Waffle, obviously. A spokesman lashed out at Schroeder and called for unity with Washington, while Merkel herself said she agreed with Schroeder.

This election should have been a slam dunk for Merkel. Her opponent, after all, presides over record 12 percent unemployment, five straight years of close-to-zero economic growth and an epidemic of angst over Germany's prospects. Even some of his own cabinet ministers treat the chancellor like a lame duck, openly speculating about political alliances in a post-Schroeder era. By rights, these should be ideal circumstances for any opposition. Why, then, are Merkel and her Christian Democrats in such disarray?

Amid intramural bickering, the party has seen its once resounding majority in the polls continue to melt away, down from a 20-point margin in June to just 12 today (42 percent for the CDU to the SPD's 30 percent). Meanwhile, in Germany's depressed east, the CDU is running neck and neck with the Linkspartei, a new anti-establishment protest group that's grown out of the old East German communists and now speaks for 10 percent of the nation's voters. That arithmetic makes it practically impossible for Schroeder to come out on top. But it also puts the odds near even that Merkel will fail to get her own majority and be forced to rule in a paralyzing "grand coalition" with Schroeder's dysfunctional SPD.

Merkel hasn't helped her chances. Early on, she seemed poorly prepared, twice in interviews confusing net and gross wages--a trifle, perhaps, but bad for a candidate running on her claim to mastery of economic issues. An uncharismatic speaker on the stump, Merkel's refusal to agree to more than one TV debate with the telegenic Schroeder has been widely interpreted as an admission of weakness. Merkel, who has never campaigned for more than a Bundestag seat, has steadied in recent weeks and seems more at ease. Because she's so widely perceived as less media-savvy than Schroeder, she may even score a surprise victory in the Sept. 4 debate.

So far, however, "Merkel has not convinced Germans she can do any better than Schroeder," says Thomas Petersen of the Allensbach polling institute. It doesn't help that the election platform Merkel unveiled in late July, trumpeted as a grand "Change of Politics," turned out to be disappointingly weak."It goes in the right direction, but many of the specifics are minor and vague," says economist Michael Burda of Berlin's Humboldt University. Its most controversial plank is a 2 percent cut in payroll taxes--dutifully "refinanced" by a matching increase in the sales tax--instead of the bold cuts in state expenditures that experts such as Burda call for. The strict worker protections that make German companies loath to hire would be relaxed--but only for companies employing fewer than 20 workers. In a recent interview, Merkel insisted she, too, rejects capitalism in favor of Germany's tried-and-true "social market economy." Some of this, surely, is part of the political give-and-take required to gain power in Germany. …

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