Frau Merkel lost another election. This time the one in the capital, in Berlin. That is, at least, the headline that tops most of the news on the outcome of this, the seventh regional election in Germany this year.
But even though election defeats taste bitter, and Frau Merkel had to swallow rather a lot of this bitter broth since her re-election, HER defeat is NOT the real news this morning.
The REAL news is, as it is so often, below the headlines. It's true that Merkel and her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), have been losing ground in virtually all elections over the past few years (even her return to power in 2009 was anything but a true VICTORY; she clinched it only with the help of an almost 20 percent-strong Liberals (FDP)). The disenchantment—to put it mildly—of both Merkel and the German voter at large is the real trend of these past elections.
The FDP was supposed to be Merkel's "dream coalition partner." Coming out of a four-year term with a difficult, but workable grand coalition with her major opponents, the former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's SPD, Merkel thought sailing into a coalition with the Liberals would make her life easier. After all, the two parties saw—or so she thought—eye-to-eye on many of the major political issues. But from the get-go, the sailing was anything but smooth.
Merkel and her FDP Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle clashed on virtually every issue, and the "love" soon turned very sour. From behind closed doors, one could occasionally hear the sigh, "If only we still had the SPD as coalition partner."
But it was (and IS) also clear that both Merkel and the FDP were stuck in this increasingly unhappy political marriage, each for their own reasons: the FDP, because they had to be afraid of not even making it back into the federal parliament at all (in Germany, any given party must secure at least 5 percent of the vote to get "in"); and the CDU, because they knew they would not be able to secure an absolute majority—far from it!—and neither SPD nor the SPD's ex-coalition partner,
The environmentalist Greens, would likely be wooed into a coalition with Merkel. So in this unhappy center-right coalition, both Merkel and the FDP had little choice but to press on and hope for the best. They hoped that the voters' tide would turn back in their favor by the time the next regular federal election comes up—in 2013!
In all the regional elections this year, the overall trend was more or less clear: The Greens are getting stronger and stronger, the SPD is regaining strength; and on the other side of the scales, Merkel´s CDU is on a downhill slope (earlier this year, her party lost the southern stronghold in Baden-Wuerttemberg after ruling there supreme for more than 40 years).
The FDP is sinking faster than the Titanic, dropping out of one regional parliament after the other, because they can no longer clear the 5 percent hurdle.
That's what also happened in Berlin over the weekend. OK, OK, there WERE some special features of this particular vote:
A) The ruling mayor general, Klaus Wowereit, is extremely popular in the capital and was triumphantly returned to power on as much a personal ticket as his party.
B) "Die Piraten" (the pirates, yes, that IS a party in Germany) gained 8.9 percent. Arrrrrrrggh, me mateys!!!!
C) The CDU hasn't ruled in Berlin in decades, and a victory for Merkel was never even remotely on the cards. Moreover, with 23 percent of the vote, as compared with the SPD´s 29 percent, the result is even respectable and stable.
In the end, Merkel can be almost relieved, both at the outcome for her own party and the one for the FDP. With the Liberals gaining only 1.8 percent of the vote, she can breathe a little easier.
Why? Simple: In a desperate (and desperately transparent) attemp to run the tide and regain some popularity, the FDP recently embarked on a campaign of Euro-scepticism. Merkel's own vice chancellor (by then the FDP has dumped Westerwelle and put Philip Roessler in his place, though as economic minister rather than foreign) over these past weeks, has been harping on about "orderly insolvency" for Greece being feasible and saying that "deficit sinners" should be encouraged to leave the Euro.
THAT really went down well with Frau Merkel—as you can imagine. Finance Minister Schaeuble was (and is) enraged; he openly called Roessler incompetent and not fit for the job; and promiment members of the CDU now openly wish they were still in the old, unloved grand coalition with the SPD.
From the leadership of the SPD and the Greens one can hear even more: They are urging Merkel to break her coalition with the FDP ("because the Liberals have become a danger to Europe") and to rule on as head of a minority government. They, Greens and SPD, would then tolerate and support that until the next regular elections.
Let's face it: Everything is possible now. EVERY-THING! Merkel could simply fire her FDP ministers and provoke the breakup of the coalition. She could openly break the coalition and rule on with a minority government, looking for majorities as she goes along.
She could call a confidence vote and hope to get the "confidence" with the help of enough votes from the opposition. Or she could just pack it all in an call for early elections.
Who ever said German politics were boring, eh?