Angela Merkel’s election victory has been widely hailed as historic, on a personal as well as political level: not only did her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) achieve its best result since 1994, with 41.5% of the vote, but she herself gained an impressive third term as Chancellor of Germany – only the third post-war Chancellor to have done so. Headlines stress the impact of her personal brand on this success, with one BBC correspondent going so far as to claim that we are now in ‘the era of Angela Merkel’. But while Merkel’s personal popularity may be an asset to her party, she nevertheless faces difficult coalition negotiations which seem likely to destabilise the CDU and force her into a relaxation of her prized austerity policy.
Merkel’s success rate with coalitions is not high, although the damage is usually to her partners rather than her own party: the 2005 ‘grand coalition’ between the CDU and their traditional opponents the Social Democratic Party (SPD) ended in severe electoral losses for the SPD. Similarly, the Free Democratic Party, the latest CDU coalition partners, failed to gain any seats in the recent elections. This time around, another CDU-SPD coalition is probable, but the centre-left SPD is likely to exact a high price for their co-operation. To avoid appearing to be the junior partner in another grand coalition, they could push for a lessening of austerity, better social security, and alterations to the 2010 pro-business labour reforms. Such changes would not only make Merkel and her party look weak, but could also threaten her personal brand, which is based around protecting ordinary Germans from the profligacy of the southern EU states by exacting a heavy price for financial assistance.
The speed with which a coalition will be formed is a source of concern for European politicians: in 2005, coalition negotiations lasted over two months, and Merkel’s stereotypically German insistence on ‘thoroughness before speed’ has sparked fears that the same could happen this year. Germany is a key player – perhaps the key player – in European affairs, and the lack of a functioning government threatens the fragile economic stability in countries such as Cyprus. It is also possible that Greece could take advantage of this leadership vacuum to press for a reduction in austerity, forcing Merkel into SPD-backed concessions. Besides this, the SPD’s traditional opposition to the CDU seems likely to destabilise Merkel’s government, as well as causing problems for the party itself: at a British-German Association conference, David Marsh, deputy chairman of the German-British Forum, claimed that ‘the SPD will be in opposition and in government at the same time’.
Finally, Merkel’s election strategy, while successful in terms of votes gained, may be storing up political problems for the future: her popular post-Fukushima shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power plants robbed the anti-nuclear Green party of both its most popular policy and a key part of its identity, threatening future cooperation between the two parties. Furthermore, the CDU’s election campaign, which relied heavily on Merkel’s personal popularity and presented her as a ‘safe pair of hands’ for Germany, has been criticised by the opposition for encouraging a ‘cult of personality’. This highlights the main issue with Angela Merkel’s victory: while the recent election results are a triumph for her, they are based on her position as the most popular politician in Germany rather than on her party’s merits. If post-election wrangling threatens this popularity, it could not only destabilise the government, but also tarnish Merkel’s currently admirable legacy.