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by Euro Reporter
2013-09-23 10:20:58
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Merkel re-elected in show of strong support for party

Chancellor Angela Merkel scored a stunning personal triumph in Sunday’s national elections in Germany, becoming the only major leader to be re-elected twice since the financial crisis of 2008 and winning strong popular endorsement for her mix of austerity and solidarity in managing troubled Europe. Although final vote tallies were not expected until Monday, the surprising show of strength for the chancellor and her centre-right Christian Democrats — even their own polls had not suggested such a result — might just translate into an absolute majority, according to exit polls by both major German television stations. That is something no German chancellor has achieved since Konrad Adenauer in 1957. Ms. Merkel, 59 and a physicist raised in Communist East Germany, was unusually buoyant when she appeared before supporters, who chanted “Angie! Angie!” and gave her two whole minutes of applause at party headquarters. She exuberantly thanked voters, campaigners and her husband, the quantum chemist Joachim Sauer. Mr. Sauer, who tends to shun the limelight, stood at the side of the stage, acknowledging the jubilation of her fans.

Later, during a raucous celebration at her party headquarters, Ms. Merkel clapped and sang along with the crowds but reminded them, “Tomorrow, we work.”  For all her success, it is not clear how Ms. Merkel will govern in her third four-year term. Her allies for the past four years, the business-minded Free Democrats, were expected to lose their place in Parliament, missing the 5 percent cut-off. And a narrow majority would be unstable — risking defeat in crucial parliamentary votes needed to pass more aid or credits for troubled economies.  So the most likely course is that Ms. Merkel will enter a grand coalition with the No. 2 party nationally, the centre-left Social Democrats.  In the past three years, the Social Democrats have given crucial support to Ms. Merkel in Parliament in passing credit lines and aid packages, tied to painful reforms, for euro-zone countries in need. But the centre-leftists are likely to extract a high price in domestic reforms — a minimum wage, or social change — in exchange for joining a Merkel government in which they would be clearly the junior partner. Exit poll projections showed them with around 25 percent, far below their centre-right rivals, whose vote totals are projected to be around 42 percent.

Ms. Merkel entered politics after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. She is now widely viewed as the world’s most powerful woman, and set to overtake Margaret Thatcher as Europe’s longest-serving elected female leader. Her critics accuse her of lacking strategic vision, relying on tactical skills to survive, and ask why she has not used her power to write more history, both at home and in the unified Europe that is the source of Germany’s political and economic strength. “She has a technocratic understanding of Europe,” said Joschka Fischer, the former Greens leader and foreign minister from 1998 to 2005. But, he added, “Europe is not a scientific project.” The euro crisis, in this view, is about politics and sovereignty, and how much of the latter the 17 nations that use the euro, and the 11 others in the European Union, are prepared to abandon to make a success of their project. Mr. Fischer sees Germany, and Europe, as stuck midway while crossing a river, unable to return to the riverbank they have left, but unable to get to the other side with Ms. Merkel as navigator. Other analysts suggested that neither the chancellor nor most Germans, who are conservative by nature and relish their position as the economic powerhouse of Europe, are prepared to shoulder such leadership.

Sunday’s election outcome “is the safest course for a country like Germany,” Annette Heuser, executive director of the Bertelsmann Foundation, said in a telephone interview from Washington. The mentality, she said, is “Why rock the boat?” Yet the elections also hinted at more volatility in German politics, with the Greens, for example, tumbling from 20 percent-plus showings two years ago to less than 9 percent on Sunday. Most surprisingly, the Alternative for Germany, a protest party founded on an anti-euro platform, came from nowhere and nearly landed in Parliament, just missing the 5 percent hurdle. Alternative party supporters who gathered in a Berlin hotel were euphoric, believing that they had administered a shock to the chancellor. “It will be noticed,” said Stefan Lindemann, a hotel director from Potsdam. “This will make Frau Merkel think about whether her Europe policy is the right one.” Franz Niggemann, who ran for the party in the Tempelhof-Schöneberg section of Berlin, said: “When you think that we were founded in February, it’s a fabulous result.”

Germany’s European allies have been in suspense, waiting for the continent’s most important election this year. President François Hollande of France indicated how eager, even impatient, they are when he congratulated Ms. Merkel from Paris and invited her to visit as soon as possible. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, who hopes Ms. Merkel will support his quest to claw back rights from Europe’s regulators in Brussels, posted his congratulations on Twitter, adding, “I’m looking forward to continuing to work closely with her.” The next most pressing change on the European agenda is probably banking union, on which Germany has not pushed hard. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who with Ms. Merkel has guided his country through the euro crisis, went on television Sunday night to assure European partners that Germany would continue to play its reliable part in the continent’s affairs, but mentioned no specifics. Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels, was in Germany for the election and said Sunday’s vote meant that it would be winter before Europe resumed any overhauls. While the chancellor has talked often of “more Europe,” lately she has shown little appetite for political restructuring that would require complex changes to the treaties that govern the European Union, Mr. Techau noted.

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Germany's views on the European crisis won't change after today's elections

During the worst moments of the euro crisis, foreign leaders were amazed at the European approach to summer holidays. However bad things were, nothing stood in the way of the road to the beach, with a promise that nothing was to be done until September came round. This year summer has been extended, and Europe's leaders seem to be hanging around even longer before doing anything meaningful. They have been waiting, of course, for the German elections today before springing into action with long wish lists for the reinvention of Europe. But no matter what their hopes are, and no matter how vital Berlin is to European politics, post-election Germany is likely to prove a grave disappointment. The past five years have seen Germany forced into a role of reluctant hegemony, its political and diplomatic clout enhanced to match its doubtless economic heft. It's the paymaster, the conductor and the driver. For other European leaders, sick of fire-fighting, Germany is now also the great hope if they are to move the European Union forward and solve the crisis at its roots. Other than an admission that Greece may need yet more money, they have understood that now is not the time to throw up issues that are bound to make Merkel and the German people feel uncomfortable. Just wait until after the elections, they think, and then we can make real progress.

The bad news is that these hopes of real progress are based on a misreading of Germany and are likely to be confounded. Germany's domestic preoccupations tend to be underestimated by outsiders. Its evident economic strengths and their own comparative weaknesses have led the rest of Europe to regard modern Germany as a cash-rich colossus of our age. But despite its successes, it has real concerns that have come out in the election campaign. Germans worry about income inequalities, awful demographic projections, faltering investment levels, crumbling infrastructure, and inadequacies in higher education and in research and development. Seen from elsewhere, these may not look particularly bad, but in Germany they are significant enough to shrink any wider ambitions to lead the continent. At the same time, Germans believe their undoubted successes are due to their own efforts (especially compared with those feckless southern Europeans). They went through their own painful reforms, getting wage costs under control and making their own high-quality exports competitive through hard work. That, they say, is the secret to their success, rather than splashing money about – and that is why Germany continues to emphasise austerity as the route to economic success.

It can be argued that Germany has benefited from membership of the euro, presenting it with an in effect undervalued currency, and the fortuitous explosion in demand for its high-quality manufactures by China. It can also be argued that austerity as a cure is harming the patient rather than healing it. But no matter: wider hopes that German largesse will result in a growth strategy capable of stimulating the entire European economy will remain unfulfilled, even after the election. Germans are also concerned about the institutional direction in which Europe is going. From elsewhere in the EU, for instance, banking union is seen as a key part of the solution to the crisis, to stabilise the European project and to disentangle state finances from bank finances. But Germany has dragged its feet on this (as in other areas of fundamental reform), and the legal and political hurdles that are being thrown up to this and other areas of reform that make Germans feel instinctively uneasy are unlikely to disappear once any new coalition government has taken power. Germany has become used to its slow, pragmatic and legalistic approach to dealing with the crisis, and – unless dangerous instability returns to the markets – it will not change this.

Loftier ambitions for Europe on the world stage are also set to be frustrated. David Cameron's parliamentary defeat over intervention in Syria came as a surprise to most, given the leading role Britain – and France – typically play in European foreign policy. Germany's decision not to join in was no surprise. But many believe Europe will only be a global force with Germany involved, given its size and importance. And although Europe needs Germany if it is to have a true strategic focus, Germany itself lacks such a focus, preferring commerce to diplomacy. This will not change. European leaders holding their breath for Germany's elections should not confuse their own hopes for Germany with that country's own intentions, whoever wins power and however free of electoral constraints its politicians are. It is a long way from providing the energy and vision that the rest of Europe feels are necessary to solve the crisis at its roots. Post-election Germany will have a similar approach to pre-election Germany: legalistic, cautious and resistant to grand plans and gestures, no matter how much its European neighbours are looking to it to act. They might as well have stayed on the beach.

 


         
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