Coalition Talks Begin Merkel Sets Tone of New German Government
As coalition talks begin for Germany's new government, Chancellor Angela Merkel is already setting the agenda. She is opposing demands by her junior coalition partner, the business-friendly FDP, for labor market and welfare reforms. The new administration is going to look a lot like the old one -- both in policies and personnel.
From the eighth floor of the Chancellery in Berlin, visitors have a spectacular view of the German capital, including the green expanse of Tiergarten Park to the south and the glass dome of the Reichstag building to the east.
Shortly before the German general election on Sept. 27, the heads of Germany's trade unions enjoyed this impressive view when Chancellor Angela Merkel invited Michael Sommer, the president of the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB), and other union leaders to her offices for a closed-door meeting.
Merkel showered her guests with compliments and words of praise. Germany's economic stimulus packages, the government-subsidized short-time working program and the cash-for-clunkers scrapping premium had only become a "success story" with the help of labor leaders, Merkel said enthusiastically. She voiced her appreciation for their support by assuring her guests that, if she were reelected, there would neither be a weakening of employment protection legislation nor a rolling back of minimum wages or workers' right to a say in how their company is managed. She added that she looked forward to more regular get-togethers in the future, setting the next meeting for October, immediately following the election.
Resisting a Shift
It has been a week since Germany voted in favor of a coalition government of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union and the liberal, pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). But there is also another invisible coalition partner sitting at the table. As an advocate of the trade unions, Merkel wants to ensure that the FDP's plans for a "political shift" toward "more self-reliance" do not come to fruition. When the liberals and conservatives meet on Monday for their coalition conference, the most important outcome will already have been determined, at least when it comes to the key issues of economic and social policy. In other words, Germans may be getting a new government, but in terms of its policies it will be business as usual.
It is becoming clear that in many ways Berlin, under the new "black-yellow" coalition (named for the parties' official colors), will look about the same as it did during the previous "grand coalition" government of the CDU/CSU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The only difference will be how the government's responsibilities are divided up. The liberals will be given their chance to shine in the areas of taxation, education and civil rights, while the Christian Democrats will keep watch over the social welfare state.
It is also clear who will be setting the tone. While the Free Democrats were still basking in the supposed glow of their 14.6 percent election result, the chancellor was already wrapping up the first items on the government's future agenda. In a few comments she made in interviews, she promptly declared large parts of the FDP's campaign platform to be obsolete, reined in the CDU's sister party, the CSU, and proposed completing coalition negotiations within five weeks.
The FDP voiced the requisite objections, but Merkel has a strong argument. If her timetable is adhered to, FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who is expected to become the new German foreign minister, could already be getting to know international dignitaries such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown when they attend festivities to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9. Isn't that reason enough to hurry things up a bit?
Although the general election is barely past, German politicians are already planning for the next elections. Merkel is already thinking about state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia on May 9, 2010, when the state's CDU Governor Jürgen Rüttgers will run for reelection. She is thinking of the slim black-yellow majority in Germany's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, and of the 900,000 SPD supporters who voted for the CDU/CSU on Sept. 27.
Merkel wants to keep those voters, and to do so she is determined to reinvent herself -- once again -- at the beginning of her second term in office. She was once the spirited reformer, arguing for an overhaul of the health insurance system and tax code. Next, she played the role of the thrifty housewife, whose primary concern, even in the midst of a severe economic crisis, was to hold onto the purse strings. And now she has found a new role, namely that of the chancellor of growth, determined not to stifle Germany's delicate recovery with premature government cost-cutting programs.
The woman reestablishing herself at the Berlin Chancellery is no Margaret Thatcher, but a sort of female version of her mentor within the CDU, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Just as her predecessor paid for German reunification with borrowed funds to protect taxpayers and social welfare recipients, Merkel plans to use the same approach to overcome the financial and economic crisis.
There will be no sharp cuts in government services for now. Instead, Merkel wants to dispel Germans' fears of harsh neoliberal measures through new tax cuts. Merkel plans to counter objections that such cuts will enlarge the already massive holes in the budget by arguing that things will pick up soon in Germany and by pointing out that other countries are in a much worse situation.