The World from Berlin: European Elections 'A Debacle for the SPD'

Sunday's European elections were a disaster for Germany's Social Democrats -- and show that Chancellor Angela Merkel is well placed to win a second term in September general elections. German voters, say commentators, are skeptical of the SPD's economic competence.

European elections are rarely about Europe. And in Germany this time around, the domestic implications of Sunday's vote were even greater than normal. Indeed, with Germans heading to the polls again on Sept. 27 for general elections, the Europe vote was seen as something of a dry run.

And the results could hardly have been more revealing. Whereas last week there was still some talk about Germany's Social Democrats using the European elections as a springboard to autumn success, it now seems clearer than ever that Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely headed for re-election as Germany's head of government.

Indeed, with the Social Democrats in freefall, Merkel's hopes for an end to her current "grand coalition" with the SPD in favor of an alliance with the business-friendly Free Democrats appears to be alive and well. Merkel's conservatives ended up with 37.9 percent with the FDP coming in at 11 percent -- just below the 50 percent they will need in the autumn general elections.

The center-left Social Democrats of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is running against Merkel in the autumn, emerged as the biggest losers on Sunday, scoring their worst ever result in a nationwide election. Their 20.8 percent was even lower -- by 0.7 percent -- than in the last European election in 2004, when the previous SPD-led government was punished for its "Agenda 2010" welfare cuts.

For Steinmeier, the SPD showing is nothing short of a disaster. He had been hoping that a decent result on Sunday would enable him to focus on his autumn goal of catching up to the CDU. That now seems unlikely.

Merkel's Christian Democrats fell 5.8 points from their 2004 results to 30.7 percent but their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), was bolstered by a stronger-than-expected 7.2 percent, a boost after a string of poor election results. Together, Germany's conservatives got 37.9 percent.

The turnout was low at just 43.3 percent and the SPD is certain to mobilize more of its voters in the September election, commentators cautioned. But there's no doubt that Sunday's election was a significant indicator of political trends in Germany, and the message is that a majority of Germans don't want the government to spend billions of euros of taxpayers' money on rescuing ailing companies, commentators said.

The SPD has been arguing in favor of state bailouts in a fierce political debate about how far the government should go to rescue struggling companies, such as carmaker Opel and retail group Arcandor. Some conservatives believe it's better in the long run to allow some firms to fail.

The strong showing for the CSU has bolstered Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who has argued forcefully against state bailouts and took a political risk by saying he would have preferred Opel to file for insolvency rather than opt for the state-backed takeover by Canadian-Austrian Auto parts maker Magna.

SPIEGEL ONLINE writes:

"That Germans are only marginally interested in European elections was well known. That those few who went to vote on Sunday would show such disinterest in the Social Democrats, though, surprised even the pessimists in the party."

"It is true that the poor result for the Social Democrats is reflective of a trend seen across Europe, but that will hardly be a comfort to the party leadership. On the contrary: the SPD doesn't only have a problem mobilizing its voters, it has a problem with its leading candidate (eds. note: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) who has apparently failed miserably in his recent efforts to improve his domestic policy image."

"The massive loss of votes that the SPD experienced five years ago could easily be explained away as a protest against the government of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But there is no such excuse this time around. The SPD campaign centered clearly on a universal minimum wage and on providing millions in state-aid to struggling companies. But it didn't help. Indeed, it might have hurt, which will now have to be discussed within the SPD."

Left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:

"It's over. Sunday's election result means that the grand coalition has ceased to exist in all but name. What impetus is left for any common action? Where's the interest in any political cooperation? The result of the European election has shown that the conservatives don't need the Social Democrats. And that at this stage, cooperating with the conservatives will only do further damage to the Social Democrats.

"Given the disaster for the SPD, one might think that the conservatives and the FDP have already won the next election. But their success on Sunday is more a psychological boost fed by the failure of the SPD rather than by their own achievements. Besides, things will get difficult for the CDU now. Angela Merkel now knows that she needs (CSU leader) Horst Seehofer. And she needs (FDP leader) Guido Westerwelle. Both will charge their price."

Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The prospect that the best outcome of the general election will be a repeat of the grand coalition with the SPD as junior partner is a serious problem for candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Until now he was able to play down the weak opinion poll ratings as nothing more than snapshots, but now his insistence that he's fighting to win the next election almost sounds like a joke."

"This result is a severe setback for Merkel's challenger for another reason as well: he can't blame Brussels for it. The SPD put the foreign minister at the forefront of the campaign alongside its main European candidate, Martin Schulz, in a bid to win votes. The least one can say with hindsight is that Steinmeier didn't really have much pulling power."

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"This was a debacle for the SPD. By contrast the conservatives and their Chancellor Angela Merkel can look forward to the general election with a degree of calm."

Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"In the middle of the crisis the Germans are placing their trust in parties that stand for neo-liberal ideas rather than parties that defend big government. If Sunday's vote had been a general election, the conservatives and liberals would have come close to an absolute majority. They can feel reassured by this result while the SPD's battle to catch up has utterly failed -- they're far behind the conservatives.

"It might sound banal, but when companies and banks are on the brink of insolvency, people vote for parties they believe to be good at economic management. The crisis makes people conservative. For the SPD the result is nothing less than a disaster. It didn't manage to mobilize its voters even though it's been positioning itself as defender of the working classes."

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The ontours of a conservative-liberal coalition after the general election are starting to emerge. The best that can be said about the SPD is that's it's stabilizing at rock bottom levels after a series of disastrous European election results. Any hopes that (SPD leader Franz) Müntefering and Frank-Walter Steinmeier have for the general election are based on illusion. Not even political analysts, who usually claim omnicience, seem to know how this party can revive its fortunes. Years after Agenda 2010 and the Hartz IV unemployment benefit cuts, the SPD is as badly positioned as it was then. The SPD's bad reputation has taken root. The SPD is Germany's scapegoat party."

Mass circulation Bild writes:

"The economic crisis has led to less political upheaval among the Germans than expected. They're remaining calm. There's no sign of any panic. That means: the majority of people don't want more government, more taxpayers' billions for ailing companies in this crisis. That's the message of the European election -- especially to the SPD."

-- David Crossland, 10:30 a.m. CET

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