Merkel coasts to likely victory


Bottoms up.


Joerg Koch

BERLIN, Germany — The confidence behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s re-election campaign is evident in the few posters dotting the German capital.

Some of them show the 59-year-old leader of Europe’s largest economy standing firm during an intense argument. Her name appears nowhere. The posters merely read “More growth. More work.”

“More,” the campaign motto, is probably all that Merkel and her Christian Democratic Party need to win the most seats in parliament in the elections on September 22. Thanks to the nature of Germany’s parliamentary democracy, however, it’s far from clear which parties they would have to join to form a ruling coalition — nor is it fully guaranteed an alliance of opposition parties, even with fewer votes, wouldn’t be able to force Merkel out.

Still, that seems unlikely. Her center-right CDU is leading the polls with a solid 40 percent of support against her main challenger Peer Steinbrück and his Social Democratic Party, or SPD, who have been unable to improve on their 24 percent.

The burgeoning Greens are polling at 12 percent while the Free Democrats — the CDU’s current junior coalition partners — at only 6 percent, according to a weekly poll in the newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

Experts don’t expect surprises next month. “Voters seem content with what they have,” says Michael Borchard of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Despite the euro crisis roiling much of the continent, German inflation has dropped and the number of available jobs has increased since Merkel returned to office in 2005.

Unemployment has stabilized at around 5.4 percent, or about half of where it stood in 2005, and the economy has grown by 0.7 percent since the first quarter of this year.

Merkel’s campaign, which has mostly sidestepped directly discussing issues such as the euro crisis and won’t acknowledge her opponent by name, is capitalizing on the upswing.

“The message is, ‘We are taking care of your problems and everything will go on and in the right way — don’t be upset, don’t have any anxieties, this is the right strategy,’” Borchard says.

Nevertheless, controversy over German support for crisis-struck euro zone members surfaced this week when the finance minister broke the government’s silence by saying he believed Greece will require a third bailout.

His move was seen as an attempt to undermine SPD accusations that Merkel is suppressing the truth about the extent of Greece’s problems.

However the issue plays out in the coming weeks, much of Merkel’s attention will surely be focused on the fate of the liberal Free Democrats, the FDP, who risk losing their place in parliament if they’re unable to win the minimum 5 percent of the vote.

Merkel has said she hopes the CDU will be able to maintain its coalition with the FDP, which received 47 percent of public support in a recent poll by broadcaster ARD.

In contrast, a possible coalition between the SDP and its likely partners the Greens pulled about 37 percent of voters in the same survey.

“We have a good chance of reaching our goal and continuing our coalition,” Merkel told the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper on Saturday. “But it’s true that it will be very, very tight.”

She’s keeping her options open for now. Ruling out a coalition with the Social Democrats would be “completely implausible,” she added, although she later admitted that “nobody wants that.”

Not least Steinbrück himself, who is leading the calls against an alliance between the country’s two leading parties. That’s no surprise: The SPD won a historically low number of votes in 2009 after a term spent as the junior partner in a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats.

Steinbrück was finance minister under Merkel back then, when support for the SPD fell from 34 percent in 2005 to 23 percent, the party’s worst results since World War II.

“The overwhelming majority of [SPD] members and parliamentarians simply don’t want a repeat,” the candidate told the Hamburger Post.

Steinbrück hit the campaign trail earlier this year on a platform of raising taxes on high-income earners, establishing a federal minimum wage of 8.50 euros ($11.40) and fighting rising urban housing costs.

But his public appearances have been riddled with gaffes and his campaign has failed to convince voters he’d be able to improve on Merkel record.

He’s recently come under fire for suggesting that Merkel owes her success and popularity to being a woman and that the chancellor’s salary, more than $380,000 in 2011, is too low. He’s even blasted Merkel’s upbringings, questioning her “passion for Europe” because of her upbringing in the former communist east.

Dismissing or ignoring his charges, Merkel has plodded toward her probable victory in September in a generally sluggish campaign.

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Not even the US National Security Agency’s spying scandal — which has brought accusations of German collusion — has been enough to heat up the snooze-inducing political climate.

Although 62 percent of Germans polled in a recent survey said they were surprised by allegations of American spying on Germany, 55 percent of voters agreed that “to prevent terrorism, you have to live with it,” according to the Infratest dimap, a Berlin-based electoral research group.

Borchard says the scandal is “too far away from people’s daily lives.”

“The real problem is: Could I be jobless? Could there be some kind of tax increase?” he says. “Those are the issues that are really driving the electorate mad… or not mad.”