Will Germany's Merkel bend on austerity?

In what could only be called a major blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her call for austerity, voters in Germany’s most populous state Sunday gave a resounding vote of support to the opposition SPD (Socialist) Party and extreme environmentalist Greens.

Coming one week after voters in France and Greece made sharp turns to the left, the vote in North Rhine Westphalia raised very serious political questions that transcend the westernmost state’s boundaries.  The strong-willed Merkel, known as the “Iron Chancellor,” has remained steadfast in her support of belt-tightening spending cuts to deal with the debt crisis that wracks Europe, in spite of calls for an end to the austerity agenda from Socialist President-elect Francois Hollande in France and Coalition of Radical Left Party leader Alexis Tsipras (who emerged as the key political figure in Greece and is the likely top vote-getter in the next round of elections in June).

Now the vote to give the SPD (38.9 percent) and Greens (11.8 percent) a majority in the parliament of the state with 18 million residents, the results were seen as a voter repudiation of Merkel and her CDU (center-right) party on the spending issue.  In an obvious reference to how she has cheered leftists throughout Germany and Europe, the German publication Die Welt dubbed North Rhine Westphalia’s triumphant far-left Premier Hannelore Kraft “Queen of the Hearts.”

The vote in North Rhine Westphalia culminating in a big win for the left could accurately be called a referendum on spending and austerity.  In fact, the sudden election in the westernmost state was triggered by the right’s refusal to support Premier Kraft’s budget, reported the Financial Times, “on the grounds that plans for spending and borrowing were too generous.”

Coming after the chancellor’s ruling coalition lost six of seven state elections in 2011 (as well as citywide elections in Berlin), and only a week after voters in the state of Schleswig-Holstein dealt the CDU its worst defeat in fifty years and put the left within reach of forming the government, the vote in  North Rhine Westphalia also raises new doubts about Merkel’s ability to survive in power.  (Fortunately for the chancellor, she is not scheduled to face the voters until national elections in late 2013).

Many on the right were not happy that the CDU was being led in such a critical election by a very ambitious politician whose conservative credentials are often  in question:  Environment Minister Norbert Rottgen, who makes little secret of his desire to succeed Merkel as chancellor.  Rottgen was a major player in the Merkel government’s stunning decision to scrap nuclear power in Germany last year, and wants to end the CDU’s 30-year alliance with the smaller FDP (libertarian) Party in favor of a partnership with the extreme environmentalist Green Party.

“Norbett is German for Jon Huntsman,” was how one cynical American political reporter characterized the minister, likening him to the former Utah governor whom many on the right considered the least conservative of the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls in the U.S.  (In the wake of his party dropping more than eight percentage points from the last state election, Rottgen announced he was quitting as party leader in the state).

With the results of the state election gaining worldwide attention, other European leaders are expected to begin trying to persuade Merkel to go along with Hollande’s call for “renegotiation” of the fiscal compact among the Eurozone nations that limits deficits to a specific portion of their Gross Domestic Product.  European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is likely to go public with his opposition to the German austerity agenda.  Even before the vote Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti—an economist who is not affiliated with any party—said he look forward to the opportunity “to gain German minds, and even more difficult German hearts, not to mention German pockets” on changing to a policy of growth rather than austerity.

So the question now facing Europe is whether the “Iron Chancellor” will bend.