Safety first. That is the message that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was trying to convey with her government's recent decision to temporarily shut down seven of her country's aging nuclear reactors. With a nuclear disaster brewing in Japan, Merkel's move -- taken just a few days after the earthquake and tsunami which devastated parts of Japan's eastern seaboard -- was supposed to demonstrate decisiveness and leadership.
The whispers, though, started immediately. With a trio of important state votes looming, the course reversal on atomic energy smacked of electioneering. And on Thursday, skeptics received confirmation of their doubts -- from none other than Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle.
According to a Thursday report in the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, at the exact moment that Merkel announced the reactor shutdowns on March 15, Brüderle was addressing a meeting of the Federation of German Industries (BDI) -- a body which includes 40 of the country's top businessmen. Upon being asked about the new nuclear policy, Brüderle, according to the meeting minutes which the Süddeutsche has obtained, "noted that, given the approaching state elections, politicians are under pressure and, as such, decisions are not always rational."
Brüderle, of course, has something of a reputation for ill-thought-out utterances. During a visit to Brazil in May 2010, the economics minister mentioned numbers relating to the planned size of a euro bailout package -- without coordinating his comments with other cabinet members. He also announced that he would be making a stopover in Portugal on the way home, giving the impression of a brewing crisis there.
Difficult to Fool
Volker Kauder, conservative floor leader in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, has denied that this weekend's elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg -- and last weekend's vote in Saxony-Anhalt -- had anything to do with Merkel's about-face on atomic energy. "We take necessary decisions independent of elections," he told mass-circulation tabloid Bild on Thursday.
The BDI issued a statement on Thursday saying that the transcript of Brüderle's comments was erroneous. "The comments of the economics minister were incorrectly reproduced," the statement claims.
Still, even if the account of Brüderle's March 15 comments was correct, they would be shocking only for their candidness. Merkel's snap decision left plenty of people across Germany scratching their heads. It was only last autumn that her government spent significant quantities of political capital in its move to extend nuclear reactor lifespans in the country. Merkel's predecessor, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, had passed a law in 2002 requiring the country to go nuclear-free by 2022 -- but Merkel, together with her coalition partners from the Free Democrats, to which Brüderle belongs, reversed course, adding an average of 12 years to Germany's 17 reactors.
In doing so, Merkel insisted that lifespan extensions were unproblematic given the safety of German reactors. Many have interpreted her post-Fukushima shutdowns as an admission that such claims were disingenuous.
That perception appears to be eating into support for her party. A new survey released on Wednesday by the polling agency Forsa found that nationwide support for Merkel's Christian Democrats has plummeted by three percentage points in the last week to 33 percent. Furthermore, only 50 percent of Germans consider their chancellor to be "credible." That's way down from the 68 percent rating she enjoyed a year and a half ago.
And German voters, it would seem, are also difficult to fool. The survey found that fully 71 percent of Germans think that Merkel's three-month nuclear power moratorium was simply a campaign tactic. It looks like they were right.