Why German Vote This Month Matters

Were Merkel’s present coalition of the CDU-CSU and FDP to emerge on top September 22, the present Merkel agenda on the foreign and fiscal fronts would remain intact. Although Merkel will almost surely remain chancellor, a new coalition of parties will help her form a ruling government that could spell a very different German agenda from the current one for the rest of the world.

By John Gizzi | September 9, 2013

The irony about Germany’s national election September 22 is that there is far greater interest in the outcome in foreign capitals from Washington to Athens to Brussels than there is among voters in Berlin, Munich or anywhere in Germany.

The reason for this “ho-hum” attitude among the German electorate about their election as well as the “can’t wait” attitude among the rest of the world is summarized in two words: Angela Merkel. Her CDU (right-of center) Party is leading comfortably in nearly all polls for Bundestag races (lower house of parliament) later this month.

Hence, the universal “yawn” from the voters. They fully expect the lady they call “Angie” – Germany’s first woman chancellor and the first from East Germany – to become the first three-term chancellor since her mentor Helmut Kohl in 1994.

And that would suit President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other world leaders just fine. Along with being a reliable ally of the U.S. (Merkel supported the Afghan invasion), Merkel is also the most important European leader providing funds to debt-wracked sister nations such as Portugal and Greece.

On the verge of financial collapse in May 2010, Greece was rescued by a 110 billion-euro loan ($146 billion in U.S. dollars) for three years provided by the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. Germany weighed in for 22 billion euros of that total, with its chancellor insisting on the “debt brake” – that is, the same balanced budget from the Eurozone partners that Berlin requires of its federal and state governments.

Underscoring the significance of Merkel and Germany as starring political actors in the ongoing “Euro-drama” over creeping debt, the Financial Times’ Quentin Peel wrote: “In Europe, especially, all sorts of decisions – from finalizing a Eurozone banking union to debating debt relief for Greece – seem to have been delayed until the political makeup of the next government in Berlin is clear.”

Were Merkel running in a presidential election, her re-election and maintenance of her current government would be a proverbial “done deal.” According to Infratest Dimap, the chancellor’s nationwide approval is 63% and that of her leading opponent, SPD (Social Democrat) leader Peer Steinbrueck is a mediocre 29%. Steinbrueck insists he will not join a Merkel-led coalition government, in which case SPD Party Chairman Sigmar Gabriel – who is not close to Steinbrueck – would likely become Vice Chancellor in a grand coalition.

But this is not a presidential election. It is a parliamentary contest for seats in the Bundestag. Hence, the “twist” in Germany’s election: Merkel will almost surely remain chancellor but a new coalition of parties will help her form a ruling government. It could spell a very different German agenda from the current one for the rest of the world.

Herein lies the suspense in the German election.

Who Will “Angie’s” Dance Partner Be?

Currently, the chancellor rules because a majority of seats in the Bundestag are held by her CDU, its small Bavarian sister party CSU (Christian Social Union), and their coalition partner, the FDP (Free Democrats, or libertarian).

A just-completed Emnid poll conducted for the Sunday newspaper Bild shows the CSU-CDU drawing 39% and the FDP 6% – 5% being the minimum percentage of votes required for a party to be seated in the Bundestag.

Steinbrueck’s SPD draws 23% in the same poll, followed by the militantly environmentalist Greens at 11%, and the extreme left Linke Party 10%. Linke’s ranks include many onetime Communists from the former East Germany. The Pirate Party (which calls for universal Internet use) polls 3% and the newly formed Alternative for Germany Party, Afd, 3%.

Were Merkel’s present coalition of the CDU-CSU and FDP to emerge on top September 22, the present Merkel agenda on the foreign and fiscal fronts would remain intact.

However, were the FDP to be either eliminated as a factor by falling beneath the 5% threshold or come out with less seats than in the present Bundestag, Merkel would be forced to search elsewhere for political partners with which to cobble together the majority she needs.

To most German pundits, this means another “grand coalition” – a union between the two major parties, Merkel’s and the SPD, in which power is shared. Under this shared arrangement from 2005-09, Merkel was chancellor and several key Cabinet portfolios went to political opponents. The foreign minister, for example, was the SPD’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier (who would go on to lead his party against Merkel’s in ’09) and the finance minister was none other than Steinbrueck, her opponent today.

As to how a newly-minted grand coalition would portend differences from the present Merkel government, there would almost certainly be clashes in the Cabinet over taxes and spending, Where Merkel takes a hard-line against new expenditures and taxes, Steinbrueck has campaigned on a platform of greater education spending, a statutory minimum wage, and higher taxes on the wealthy.

With a Franco-American operation against Syria in the works, and seeking assistance from other potential allies, one German press source said Merkel is “likely to provide logistical and technical support, but not any troops or firepower. It’s too close to the election.” A Cabinet with Steinbrueck and Steinmeier at the table would in all likelihood be sharply divided over this, with SPD cabinet members opposed to any kind of German involvement. During their only televised debate August 30, Steinbrueck repeated his strong vow never to serve in a ‘grand coalition’ with Merkel again.

At the offices of the European Commission in Brussels and the IMF in Washington, it is increasingly felt that the next target for bailouts would be the beleaguered banks in Spain, Italy, and other countries. Where Merkel could be open to using the 500 billion euros now in the European Stability Mechanism (the same tripartite source of bailouts for Germany, Ireland, and Greece in 2010) to recapitalize the banks, the SPD stands firm in its position that the financial sector and not taxpayers provide recapitalization.

The “joker” in this German electoral deck is the new AfD, which wants a new European monetary union that bans bailouts and requires cash-strapped countries to abandon the Euro and operate under devalued currencies.

Polls show the AfD drawing 2-to-3% of the vote and thus falling short of the 5% threshold to enter parliament. But given recent publicity earned by the new party and a growing voter nervousness following Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaueble’s recent remark that Greece might need “another bailout” next year, it is very possible that the AfD could reach “the magic 5%.”

Drawing particularly high marks for her performance on radio interviews and on the campaign trail is Beatrix von Storch (also the Duchess of Oldenburg), who is the closest thing to a U.S.-style “tea party” candidate in the race and a certainty to take a seat, if her party gets into parliament.

In all likelihood, the bulk of AfD votes will come from the CDU. Their entry into the Bundestag would almost surely force “Team Merkel: to turn to the SDP and forge a fresh grand coalition.”

As in any election, a lot can happen between now and September 22. For now, it seems a good bet that Angela Merkel will emerge as German chancellor once again. As to who will make up her government, that remains to be seen.

John Gizzi is the White House correspondent and chief political columnist for Newsmax. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.