Last week Chancellor Angela Merkel's austerity policy suffered twin blows in Europe when Socialist Francois Hollande, a critic of her strict approach, won the French presidency and Greek voters firmly rejected the painful reforms imposed on them.
On Sunday came a further major setback for Merkel when her conservative Christian Democrats suffered a big defeat in an election in the country's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). It weakens her at home at a time when opposition to her crisis strategy is mounting across Europe.
The CDU saw their support plunge to just 26.3 percent, down from nearly 35 percent in 2010, and the worst result in the state since World War II. The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) won 39.1 percent of the vote and will have enough seats to form a stable majority with the Greens.
The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), which rule in coalition with Merkel's conservatives in the national government, scored a better-than-expected 8.3 percent. They managed to end a string of crushing regional election defeats in the May 6 state vote in Schleswig-Holstein, and have hailed the NRW result as proof of their recovery.
For the past two years, the SPD and the Greens had run a fragile minority government in NRW under the leadership of the SPD's Hannelore Kraft, a tram-worker's daughter. Her resounding victory has fuelled speculation she could become the SPD's candidate to challenge Merkel in the 2013 general election. She said on Sunday, however, that she would remain committed to fulfilling to her duty as governor of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Far More Confrontational
German media commentators say the defeat is largely attributable to the weakness of the CDU's candidate for state governor, Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, and that Merkel will be much harder to defeat in the 2013 general election.
But they also say that the result is likely to make the left-wing opposition to her far more confrontational and less ready to compromise on upcoming issues such as the ratification of the fiscal pact, for which Merkel needs a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Invigorated by their new-found strength, the Social Democrats and Greens are likely to demand concessions in return for supporting the pact that would enshrine budget discipline into the constitutions of 25 of the EU's 27 member states, commentators say. The pact is central to Merkel's increasingly unpopular strategy for tackling the European debt crisis and saving the euro.
Even if the the NRW vote wasn't a referendum on austerity policy, it does indicate that Merkel's conservatives are failing to convince voters with their austerity mantra. Cutting the state's debt was a central plank of Röttgen's unsuccessful campaign.
The debacle in NRW comes ahead of Tuesday's visit to Berlin by Hollande, who is expected to urge Merkel to shift away from austerity and place more emphasis on growth-oriented measures in Europe. Other countries like Italy also want Merkel to take a more balanced approach to the debt crisis.
Conservative Die Welt writes:
"The FDP has managed its second resurrection in a week after their success in Schleswig-Holstein. The crucial question is whether it will attribute this to its recent distancing from the CDU and, if yes, whether it will test its new-found confidence in Berlin. In this case there would be serious conflicts ... (and) the chancellor could suddenly seem pretty lonely. The earth is starting to tremble under Angela Merkel. The SPD now thinks its alliance with the Greens will march to victory in the 2013 general election. Its optimism is unfounded. Hannelore Kraft remained under 40 percent against a weak opponent in a state that has long been an SPD bastion, and the Greens barely gained any ground. Red-Green is back in power thanks to Röttgen's weakness. Angela Merkel is an opponent of an altogether different calibre."
Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"It's going to get harder for Merkel. Even if the election in North Rhine-Westphalia wasn't a vote against Merkel's austerity policy: Röttgen's defeat is now also the chancellor's problem. She has rarely gotten more heavily involved in a state election campaign. Since 2009, Merkel's party has failed in nine out of 11 elections to get a state governor elected. When the regional bastions crumble, the power in Berlin does as well."
"On a nationwide level, the conservatives won't be as easy to beat as in NRW. But for the rest of her current term, Merkel faces a confrontational SPD bent on showing a distinct profile. That is why the fiscal pact, which requires a two-thirds majority, will be a tough piece of work for her."
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"A few years ago Norbert Röttgen published a book entitled 'Germany's Best Years Are Yet to Come.' But that doesn't apply to Röttgen himself. The dramatic electoral defeat of his CDU party in North Rhine-Westphalia ends the rise of a talented, clever, ambitious and certainly dogmatic politician."
"Nationally, the CDU's collapse is more significant than the triumph of the conscientious Hannelore Kraft and her SPD.... Once again, a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel has fallen by the wayside. Within just eight weeks, Röttgen has gone from being a glowing politician, who achieved much and sought to achieve more, to being another failed candidate for the job of chancellor…"
"With Röttgen though, comes a wider failure: The failure of the hope of the CDU's more progressive factions to try out a coalition with the Green Party in a larger German state. This puts the CDU on the defensive as far as coalition strategies go. For the CDU, this result is especially harsh given that Röttgen stands for modern, enlightened and environmental elements of the party -- a political direction which, in the medium term, could help the party win back its lost majority."
Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Is this election a historic turning point -- the beginning of the end of Merkel's chancellorship? First we take NRW, then we take Berlin? For the SPD and Greens it's a beautiful story, a little too beautiful to be true. Hannelore Kraft won against Norbert Röttgen, not against Merkel. It was duel between the authentic and the arrogant. The secret of Kraft's success is that she occupied the political center ground without appearing bland. Kraft's victory is convincing, clear, even great. But it isn't a blueprint for ... victory over Merkel in 2013."
Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Two factors had to come together to create this historic defeat for the CDU: An inept top candidate and an inept election campaign. Chancellor Merkel can do little about one of those shortcomings -- but for the other her party certainly bears part of the blame. The theme of stopping new debt, which already formed the crux of a failed election campaign in Schleswig-Holstein, doesn't mobilize people. People need to be offered more, not just 'we don't want that, we don't have that, we can't do that.' The environment minister himself personifies the contradiction: When we are saving, saving saving, who will pay for the focus on new energy sources?"