Crumbling Coalition: Germans Anticipate a Collapse of Merkel's Government

Pundits think that Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is in trouble. A new survey has found that German citizens agree. Almost two-thirds think that the governing coalition in Berlin will not survive much longer.

Many in Germany think that Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition is in trouble. Here, the Chancellery in Berlin. Zoom
AP

Many in Germany think that Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition is in trouble. Here, the Chancellery in Berlin.

Commentators and pundits in Germany were unanimous: Wednesday's laborious election of Christian Wulff as the country's new president was anything but helpful for Chancellor Angela Merkel's already ailing coalition. A survey conducted by Infratest dimap seems to indicate that voters agree.

According to the poll, commissioned by public television station ARD, fully 68 percent of Germans believe that the election was a "disgrace" for Merkel and 77 percent feel that she no longer has complete control over her own governing coalition. Sixty-two percent believe that Merkel's government, which pairs her conservatives with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), will not survive much longer.

Wednesday's vote highlighted the deep fractures in Merkel's governing coalition after her hand-picked candidate Wulff required three rounds of voting to get elected, despite her government having a sizeable majority in the Federal Assembly, the 1,244-member body that chooses Germany's president. In the first round, 44 coalition delegates refused to back the chancellor's candidate; in the second, 29 balked. He was finally elected in a third round of voting.

Nine Months of Bickering

The election had been billed as a test of Merkel's authority. The disappointing results in the first two rounds have been seen as a clear message that many are extremely dissatisfied with the almost nine months of bickering which have characterized Merkel's government since it was sworn in last October.

Still, despite the frustration with Merkel's leadership, the survey seemed to indicate that Wulff escaped Wednesday's debacle relatively unscathed. Prior to the election, many had compared the career Christian Democrat unfavorably with his competitor, the former East German civil rights activist Joachim Gauck. Now, however, 72 percent think Wulff will be a good president and 80 percent feel that he will do a good job representing Germany internationally.

The position of German president is almost exclusively a ceremonial one though is seen as a valuable moral compass. Wulff will be sworn in as the Federal Republic's 10th president on Friday.

Merkel and her government have been at pains to sell Wulff's election as a victory for the coalition. In the third round of elections on Wednesday, after a nine-hour session of the Federal Assembly, Merkel's candidate finally received the absolute majority that he had been denied in the first two rounds. "There is a very large majority behind Christian Wulff," Merkel said immediately following his election.

Not Optimistic

On Thursday, a whole series of senior coalition politicians sought to assure the German public that they have learned their lessons from the Wednesday vote. The coalition, said FDP head Guido Westerwelle, who is also Merkel's vice chancellor, "must begin solving problems." Merkel said it is time "that the government does its work."

The public, though, has heard it all before. The bumpy election of Wulff was not the first time this coalition has tripped itself up. Merkel's government has addressed a whole slew of issues in the last nine months -- including health care reform, tax reform, nuclear reactor lifespans and mandatory conscription, to name a few -- and found convincing solutions to none of them.

German voters are not optimistic that such a track record can be changed. Only 31 percent of Germans, according to Thursday's survey, believe that Merkel's coalition can right the ship.

cgh -- with wire reports

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Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Day of Drama in Berlin

The Fractures in Merkel's Coalition
Tax Increases
Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet recently put together an austerity program designed to reduce spending by €80 billion ($95 billion) by 2014. It is the largest such package of cuts since World War II, but it has been criticized for not demanding sacrifices from Germany's wealthy and top earners. Several leading members of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have urged her to consider raising taxes in the highest brackets. Her junior coalition partners from the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) have protested vehemently against any such increases, with some saying that a tax hike could force the FDP out of the coalition.
Mandatory Conscription
Given Merkel's desire to cut spending, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, openly speculated that jettisoning mandatory conscription, a feature of the German military since 1957. Despite having signalled her willingness to consider just such a step, Merkel declined to support her defense minister. Rumors circulated over the weekend that Guttenberg was considering handing in his resignation as a result.
Health Care Reform
Since his swearing in last October, Health Minister Philipp Rösler (FDP) has been working on a fundamental change in the way Germany's health care system is funded. His plan has been discussed in detail within the coalition and, after difficult negotiations with the CSU, an agreement appeared to be in the offing. In the end, however, the CSU declined to support Rösler and Merkel stood by as the reform faltered, allowing her health minister's public image to suffer. The FDP was outraged and referred to the CSU as a "wild sow." In response, the CSU called the FDP a "troop of cucumbers," roughly akin to calling the party a gaggle of bumbling idiots.
Opel
Whether or not Germany will use federal funds to help out the struggling carmaker Opel has long been a point of dispute in Berlin. Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle (FDP) recently went on record as saying that no federal funds would be made available to Opel. Shortly thereafter, Merkel contradicted her minister by saying that the last word had not been spoken. Many anticipated Brüderle's resignation -- until Merkel aligned her position with that of her minister the next day. It was an about face that angered the FDP yet again and made Merkel look indecisive.
Presidential Candidate
The resignation of President Horst Köhler at the end of May caught nearly everyone by surprised. Merkel sought to find a replacement candidate quickly, and initially supported the candidacy of Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU). With some in her party tepid about von der Leyen, however, Merkel quickly backed away and threw her support behind Christian Wulff (CDU), the governor of Lower Saxony. The about-face made von der Leyen look bad.
Nuclear Reactor Life-Spans
One of the central policies of Merkel's new government when it entered office last autumn was its desire to overturn a law requiring all nuclear reactors in the country to go offline by the early 2020s. Following a miserable showing in North Rhine-Westphalia state elections in April, however, her government lost its majority in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber. Merkel's government, already not totally in agreement on nuclear energy policy, mused about the possibility of pushing through the extension without Bundesrat approval, but has since been criticized for considering such a course of action. Merkel remains unsure how to proceed. Part of the austerity package foresees a new tax on radioactive waste, but there has been public disagreement within the CDU as to whether such a tax would be introduced without a lifespan extension. The headlines have added to the impression the coalition has lost its way.
Graphic: Germany chooses a president Zoom
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Graphic: Germany chooses a president



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