Foreboding Merkel's fate

The results of a much-watched election for a state government in Germany this Sunday could well determine whether the leader of what is widely considered the most stable of European governments remains in power this fall.

Right now, polls show the ruling coalition of German Chancellor Angela Merkel???s CDU (conservative) Party and the smaller Free Democratic (libertarian) Party are running behind in their effort to hang on to the government of Lower Saxony. Should the leftist coalition of the Social Democratic Party and the militantly environmentalist Green Party emerge triumphant in the race for control of Germany???s second-largest state on Sunday, then fresh doubts will be raised about whether Merkel???s ruling coalition can survive in national elections this September.

As far as the United States is concerned, a Merkel downfall would be significant. One of this country???s closest allies in Europe???someone who backed the U.S. action in Afghanistan and has had a close working relationship with Presidents Obama and George W. Bush???would be out of power.

The ???Iron Chancellor??? out of power? The head of the most financially sound government in Europe defeated? At first glance, this seems out of the question. Polls almost universally show Merkel by far the most popular politician in Germany. They also show her center-right coalition with leads of 10-to-15 percentage points nationwide over the Social Democratic opposition, headed by former Finance Minister Peer Steinbr├╝ck.

But Merkel could be deposed from power. The conservative government in Lower Saxony headed by the magnetic State Premier David McAllister (he???s half-Scottish and half-German) could lose Sunday–not because of any shortcomings on his part, but because the Free Democratic Party that is part of his state coalition (and Merkel???s at the federal level) may fall below the 5 per cent of the vote that is required for seats in the state parliament. With McAllister thus lacking the partner necessary to form a right-of-center government, the Social Democrats and Greens an opportunity to forge a ???red-green??? coalition and take power.

Such a scenario in Lower Saxony this Sunday could raise significant doubts as to whether the Free Democrats can manage the five percent of the vote nationwide to be in the Bundestag (national parliament). Failure of the Free Democrats emerge with any seats in parliament would spell the end of the party that has been a junior partner to ruling governments in Germany since 1969.

For Merkel, the Free Democrats??? demise would mean 1) forming a ???grand coalition??? with the Social Democrats, who are likely to emerge once again as the second-strongest party this fall 2) making an alliance with the Greens and thus moving to the left on issues such as the environment or 3) relinquish power to Steinbr├╝ck, and let him form a new, sure-to-be-leftist government with the Greens.

Should any of the scenarios come about, Chancellor Merkel would either be out of power or forced to move left. Either way, things would not be the same in Berlin, as far as the U.S. is concerned.

Clearly recognizing what the results in Lower Saxony could mean, Merkel joined with her ally McAllister last week at a pre-election rally on the outskirts of Hanover. There are other, long-range political factors involved in the balloting Sunday. Accompanied by Scottish bagpipers and supporters waving placards bearing the legend ???I???m a Mac??? (borrowed from the Apple computers slogan), McAllister is considered one of his party???s best campaigners, At 42, he is also regarded as an eventual heir to Merkel as chancellor.

So a lot is riding on what voters in Lower Saxony do this Sunday. McAllister himself may have put it best when he told the Financial Times recently: ???Elections are fun. You just have to win them.???


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