Coalition Blues The End of Merkel's Summer Fairy Tale

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's dream of a new beginning for her coalition government this autumn has gone bust. While she fights for political survival, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer are making it more and more difficult for her to govern.

Westerwelle, Merkel, Seehofer (left to right): The good times couldn't last.
AFP

Westerwelle, Merkel, Seehofer (left to right): The good times couldn't last.


Angela Merkel tries everything. You have to give her credit for that. Last Thursday, she visited the southwestern city of Heilbronn, where her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), hosted a debate. It was clear from the start that it would not be easy for her. Baden-Württemberg, the state where Heilbronn is located, holds elections next spring, and Merkel's approval ratings there are sinking like lead.

When Merkel, recognizing that it was important to generate enthusiasm, raved about the thriving job market, she sounded like a chancellor who was at peace with herself: "We made the right decisions."

But there is also a completely different view of the situation, that of the CDU base. Rolf Zülli, a retired senior government official, spoke up. "The government is seen as a totally disunited bunch of people," he said. Then Ralf Stoll, the CDU chairman in a town near Stuttgart, stepped up to the microphone and said: "People want clear positions instead of hearing something different every week. I hope she finally shows some leadership." And when Kurt Hahn, a native of Bavaria, said his piece, the audience applauded. The chancellor, Hahn said, should talk some sense into Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). "It's about time we saw some tough talk going in Bavaria's direction."

'We've Heard the Warning Shots'

The evening in Heilbronn reaffirmed one thing: Everything's going against Merkel. Over the summer, the chancellor tried to revamp her ailing coalition between the CDU and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), hoping it would make headlines with actions and not, for once, internal strife. She even convinced Seehofer and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to put an end to their squabbling.

At first it went well. Westerwelle focused on his responsibilities as foreign minister. Seehofer stopped devoting all his energy to blocking Berlin's policies. He gave a vote of approval to the suspension of compulsory military service, a new energy plan, and healthcare reform.

It seemed the two men who once rarely saw eye-to-eye were learning they could be successful as a team, and for a few weeks they sounded like repentant sinners. "I believe you will experience a different coalition in the coming months," Seehofer said. "We've heard the warning shots coming from voters," Westerwelle said.

Unfortunately, the two men came to their senses only for a short time. Last week Merkel's summer fairy tale of a peaceful coalition ended precipitously. First Seehofer challenged plans to raise the retirement age to 67. It was a populist-minded low blow, particularly since Merkel had declared it an issue where she intended to stand her ground. Then Westerwelle fell back into the role he had always favored -- that of a feisty opposition politician. He defined Merkel's European policy as an attack on the stability of the euro. Once again, the posh Foreign Ministry seemed to be doubling as Westerwelle's campaign headquarters.

All of should be depressing news for Merkel, because the poor behavior of her partners is quite deliberate. At FDP headquarters in Berlin and at the Franz Josef Strauss Building in Munich, where the CSU is based, it is an open secret that only one person benefits from a course of harmony within the coalition: Merkel. Now her partners are changing direction. "Successes are best celebrated alone," says a leading FDP politician.

Merkel vs. Westerwelle

Westerwelle and Seehofer are too beleaguered to serve the coalition. In fact, both men are fighting for their political survival, which is why quick headlines are more important to them than long-term successes. At the moment there is every indication that the CDU/FDP coalition has merely taken a break from its rapid descent.

Merkel deserves some of the blame. The chancellor knows how agitated her foreign minister's mood can be. Westerwelle normally seems to feel slightly overlooked, but now the FDP is discussing his removal as party chairman.

Westerwelle must have perceived it as a slap in the face when Merkel met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy last Monday and agreed to soften new rules regarding the eurozone's Stability and Growth Pact -- without consulting her business-minded foreign minister.

He was outraged when he learned about the meeting, and there was even a rumor circulating within the FDP that Westerwelle had considered letting the government collapse, which a spokesman denies.

Westerwelle confronted Merkel in a private conversation before the cabinet meeting on Wednesday. After this year's euro crisis, a new enforcement regime for the Stability and Growth Pact was suggested to firm up the euro. Merkel had paid lip service to strict, automatic enforcement, but Westerwelle now accused her of bowing to Sarkozy in agreeing to relax the rules. (Specifically, he criticized a sudden retreat from automatic sanctions against governments that stray from budget guidelines.) His tone was not as harsh in the ensuing cabinet meeting, but Westerwelle called on Merkel to make sure eurozone budget violators would be severely punished.

At that point, he could have let the matter rest, but then government spokesman Steffen Seibert, speaking at the Federal Press Conference, said the FDP was on board with Merkel's policy. "The federal government, in its current configuration that includes the CDU, the CSU and the FDP, endorses and reinforces the chancellor's course in this direction." Seibert neglected to interpret Westerwelle's comments in the cabinet as criticism.

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