The result Sunday of citywide elections in Berlin, Germany, is the latest piece of continuing political fallout for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her CDU-CSU (conservative) government that could well culminate in a decidedly left-of-center government running Europe’s largest economy—and one that could be in power before the next national elections scheduled for 2014.
And the outcome of the races for all 141 seats in the Abgeordnetenhaus (Chamber of Deputies) that governs Berlin is also the latest lesson for Merkel and other conservatives on just whether it pays to make major political concessions to the Left: It doesn’t, and the lesson learned should be, “Don’t try to appease those who hate you politically.”
In March of this year, obviously fearing a defeat for her party in elections in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Merkel made headlines worldwide by reversing her long-standing nuclear policy. She ordered a moratorium on extending the life of Germany’s nuclear power stations. Merkel also made a clear bow to the Left by refusing to join with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the NATO intervention in Libya.
In short, the chancellor long known as “Iron Angie” for her tough-mindedness was suddenly making overt (and obviously political) overtures to the radical environmentalist Green Party and the anti-war Left.
So how much political gain did these overtures yield for Merkel? The answer is what it almost always is for conservatives who try to make political gain by going in the opposite direction. None whatsoever.
Merkel Has Lost a Lot of Ground
In results that sent political shock waves far beyond the borders of Germany, voters in predominantly upper-middle class Baden-Württemberg not only ousted Merkel’s CDU-CSU from state government after nearly half a century, but actually elected Germany’s first-ever Green Party state premier.
On Sept. 4, in the sixth of seven state elections held this year, the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania returned the left-of-center Social Democratic Party (SPD) to power with 37% of the vote—a gain of 5 percentage points over the last state election. The results were particularly stinging for Merkel, whose own parliamentary constituency lies in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.
And on Sunday, Berlin’s fate. Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s SPD won enough seats to guarantee his third term in City Hall, while the Greens gained six seats to finish third (29 seats). Thus Wowereit will rule as mayor heading a “Red-Green” coalition—red for the SPD, green for the Greens, and very left-wing.
Even more dramatic was that the Free Democratic (libertarian) Party (FDP) fell short of the minimum 5% of the vote need to win seats in the Berlin Chamber of Deputies, and is thus out of politics in the city, period. The FDP has also lost ground in several other state elections this year, and this is significant, as the small party is the coalition partner in Merkel’s government.
FDP leader Philipp Rosler, Germany’s vice chancellor and economy minister, noted Quentin Peel in the Financial Times, “is also facing a rebellion by Euro skeptics [in his party] who are bitterly opposed to the eurozone bailout funds that Ms. Merkel has agreed to guarantee to help Germany’s debt-laden partners” on the Continent. Should the rebels assert themselves and reinvent the FDP as a Euro skeptic party, then the next likely step would be its walkout from the government—depriving Merkel of a majority in the Bundestag and forcing her to form a coalition with other partners to hang on, or call new elections.
And new elections at this time more likely than not would put in power a coalition of the SPD and the Greens—and a government that would take environmentalism to an extreme, and very likely redefine Germany’s role in NATO and its relationship with the U.S.
Would Merkel and her government be in such an embattled state today if she had not retreated completely from their traditional stand for nuclear power? Obviously, there are other factors in her current political plight beyond nuclear power. But it is also obvious that, as many other conservatives who reverse political principle in attempts to broaden their base have learned, the strategy doesn’t work.
Perhaps the best lesson from Merkel’s situation can be summed up with an old admonition from a distinguished American, University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal: “Dance with who brung you.”