Beware the Ides of March Could State Election Spell End for Merkel?

Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats are facing abysmal poll numbers and could even lose control of one of their strongholds in a key state election next March. One conservative newspaper is speculating that, if that happens, Merkel could soon be on the way out.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen with German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in the German parliament. Guttenberg is apparently being talked about as a possible successor as chancellor.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen with German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in the German parliament. Guttenberg is apparently being talked about as a possible successor as chancellor.

Has the end of Angela Merkel's chancellorship heaved into view? After miserable poll numbers that show her coalition government losing support among German voters, the heavyweight conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is now speculating on forces that could topple the chancellor after next March, when the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg holds state elections.

Baden-Württemberg is a stronghold for Merkel's party, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU). Its CDU governor, Stefan Mappus, may lose anyhow -- in part because he supports an unpopular, multi-billion-euro renovation of Stuttgart's main train station, a project known as Stuttgart 21. Street protests against Stuttgart 21 have recently turned bloody, and there have been complaints about authoritarian measures by police.

Chancellor Merkel has made her position on the renovation clear in national budget debates: Not only is she in favor of Stuttgart 21, she's argued that the March elections would serve as a de facto referendum on the project. These remarks could make her vulnerable to discontent within the CDU if Mappus -- and the rest of the state's Christian Democrats -- fail to win. The CDU has been part of the state government in Baden-Württemberg for 57 years.

Guttenberg as Favorite

Merkel was re-elected in 2009 and might not face new elections until 2014, if the political tides run in her favor. But the FAZ reported Wednesday that a movement within her bloc for a new leader may already be afoot. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, 38, is the current defense minister and a rising star in the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU. The generally well-sourced FAZ wrote that he is "at the center of the speculation" about a possible successor to Merkel as chancellor. Guttenberg is not just young but also well-groomed and popular among female voters. Other clear contenders are Roland Koch, the former governor of Hesse, and Ursula von der Leyen, Merkel's popular labor minister.

But the latest Forsa polls, asking Germans who they would vote for if a national election were held on the coming Sunday, put the CDU/CSU under 30 percent, and the Free Democrats -- Merkel's coalition partners -- at under 5 percent, meaning they would not even pass the 5 percent hurdle to get seats in parliament. The big winners in the poll are the Left and Green parties. This leftward lurch makes the staunchly conservative Koch look uncertain as a potential nominee. Since von der Leyen has an "almost identical" political profile to Chancellor Merkel, as the FAZ puts it, she would also not be of much help in the event of a CDU collapse in March. The conservatives would conceivably look for new blood.

Guttenberg has proved to be a flexible, ambitious politician. He comes from an old, upper-crust southern German family. Whether chatter in conservative circles about his future has to do with a "real power struggle (within the CDU/CSU) or merely what-if speculation" is, according to the FAZ, not clear.

But the danger for Merkel in Baden-Württemberg is unambiguous. A major loss for the left-leaning Social Democrats in their own stronghold state, North Rhine-Westphalia, led to early elections for then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2005 -- the year Merkel herself came to power.



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