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SPIEGEL ONLINE

02/20/2012 01:12 PM

Outfoxed by the Opposition

Defeat in Presidential Battle Leaves Merkel Isolated

A Commentary by Christoph Schwennicke

In accepting the opposition's candidate for the next German president, Angela Merkel has suffered the bitterest defeat of her chancellorship. Her junior coalition partner, the FDP, teamed up with the two main opposition parties to push through their choice. The ignominious defeat could mark a turning point for the German chancellor.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a particular trait that is both very human and very likeable: She is unable to keep her facial expression under control. Her features always betray her mood and what she is thinking.

At the press conference on Sunday evening where Germany's five main political parties presented Joachim Gauck as their consensus candidate for the office of German president, Merkel tried to smile bravely. But she was unable to stop herself from sporting a sour expression as she forced herself to praise the man who, less than two years ago, she had tried to prevent from becoming president with all the means at her disposal. Back then, Merkel's hand-picked candidate, Christian Wulff, succeeded in becoming president -- only to resign under a cloud last Friday following a series of scandals.

There is a good reason for Merkel's feelings of bitterness. In the search for a new German president, she has suffered a complete and utter failure. She has been forced to accept the bitterest defeat of her time in office. Gauck's candidacy was forced upon her by an alliance of three parties: the opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, together with her junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). It could mark a turning point in her chancellorship.

The Political Chess Board

The conservatives are now trying to put a positive spin on Merkel's concession and portray it as a clever move. But this is a deliberate misinterpretation. It is reminiscent of a similar attempt involving then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. In February 2004, when Schröder resigned as leader of the SPD, some people -- completely ignoring the facts -- praised it as a wise strategic decision. In reality, his decision was made out of weakness and adversity. As one observer, showing great foresight, put it at the time, it was "the beginning of the end." (Schröder would be voted out of office the following year.) Schröder's failure was unmistakable, the observer said, describing it as a "total loss of authority." The person who delivered that damning verdict was none other than the leader of the opposition at the time, Angela Merkel.

Speaking before the start of the weekend, Merkel described the search for a successor to Christian Wulff using a very elegant expression, one that neatly captures her whole political approach. The search, she said, would be an "iterative process" -- in other words, it would proceed through a series of small, logical steps that would be repeated until a solution was found.

Such a logical approach is at the heart of Merkel's enormous passion for politics. The trained physicist always considers a situation as if it were a chess board. She asks herself how she can ultimately get a particular person into the desired position, and what moves are required to get them where she wants. She finds great pleasure in such deliberations. And the more talented her opponent, the more she enjoys the game.

Losing Control of the Game

One should therefore guard against making hasty judgments about her decisions. Often the moves which are ridiculed or criticized as weak at the time will later turn out to be masterful. For example, in 2002, she ceded the conservatives' candidacy for chancellor to Edmund Stoiber, at the time the leader of Bavaria's Christian Social Union, the sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. At the time, her concession was considered to be due to her weak position, but history would show that it was a pyrrhic victory for Stoiber. The Bavarian politician would never become chancellor, but Merkel would. In her thinking, Merkel always keeps her eye on the prize. She waited until the chancellorship was ripe for the taking, after Schröder's political decline in 2004, before she threw her hat in the ring. She went on to win the 2005 election and become German chancellor.

This time, however, Merkel has miscalculated. She did not give ground because she is an intelligent strategist, but because she lacks power. She tried to outflank the SPD and Greens by putting forward her own candidate for president who, like the popular Gauck, was intended to be beyond reproach and therefore a tough choice for the opposition to reject: Andreas Vosskuhle, president of Germany's Federal Constitutional Court. Vosskuhle is associated more with the SPD than the CDU, which would have made it difficult for the SPD, Greens and FDP to oppose him as a presidential candidate.

But when Vosskuhle made it clear on Saturday that he did not want to be president, Merkel lost control of the game. The SPD and Greens quickly realized that the FDP's support for Gauck gave them an unprecedented opportunity to isolate Merkel and overturn the established power relations with one fell swoop. It was an end game that Merkel, the canny strategist, had not foreseen.

Joining Forces against Merkel

That's why this weekend marked a turning point in German politics. Not only did it produce a cross-party presidential candidate who is sure to be Germany's next president, it has also shaken up Germany's political structures. In the ad hoc alliance between the SPD, Greens and the FDP, three parties have come together to oppose the chancellor. Two of them have already had painful experiences as Merkel's coalition partners -- the SPD during the 2005-2009 grand coalition, and the FDP, which has seen its fortunes wane as Merkel's current, often ignored, junior coalition partner. The third party, the Greens, wants to avoid this painful fate. Now the three parties, which could conceivably join forces to form a coalition government after the 2013 election, have gone their own way.

The trio has outfoxed the arch-strategist Merkel. The chancellor and CDU leader has become more isolated since the weekend -- and weaker.

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