BERLIN, Germany — In an ideal world, Chancellor Angela Merkel should really be confident of winning a third term in next year’s federal election.
Most Germans approve of how she’s handled the euro crisis. She is riding high in the opinion polls, and her party, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), is the most popular in the country, enjoying 38 percent support.
But Merkel also has a big problem: her junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), is in freefall. With their support waning, they are likely to be wiped out in the next federal vote in 2013, leaving Merkel forced to find an alternative partner.
With that dim prospect looming on the horizon, suddenly the fragile coalition faces another unwanted test. A snap election has been called for North-Rhine Westphalia, the country’s industrial heartland, which could ultimately jeopardize Merkel’s status as chancellor ahead of the 2013 federal elections.
Merkel's status matters to Europe, and to the global economy, because she has led the effort to pull the euro zone back from the brink of collapse. She has forced dramatic and unpopular changes on Europe's national governments — in particular, strict government austerity. If she were forced from power in 2013, that agenda would likely be altered under her successor — for better or for worse.
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While there are two other smaller regional votes this year, North Rhine-Westphalia is in a league of its own. With a population of 18 million it is the most populous state in Germany, and is regarded as an important indicator of the national mood and a bellwether for future federal elections.
In 2010, the CDU’s election loss in North Rhine-Westphalia caused Merkel to lose her majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, representing the 16 states. That was followed by a number of strong results by the opposition in other regional elections last year, making it difficult for Merkel to pass legislation, which needs approval in both houses.
The forthcoming vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, which will be held on May 13, was a result of a misstep by the FDP. The party inadvertently caused the dissolution of parliament by voting against the state budget on the second reading, in the hope of winning concessions before the third reading. However, it transpired that the state rules mandated that the budget was rejected, and the government fell.
The timing couldn’t be worse for the FDP, which will struggle to get past the 5 percent of the vote it needs to retain seats in parliament. It currently is polling just 2 percent in the state.
The likely winners? The state’s current minority government, led by the Social Democrats in coalition with the Greens, who are now on course for an outright majority.
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Predictably Merkel has sought to play down the significance of the election. “Work at the federal level is completely independent from work at the state level,” she said after the snap election was announced last week. However, there are a number of dangers for her in the vote.
The likely humiliating defeat of the FDP will make them an even less appealing coalition partner. The party is already far from enthusiastic about the euro bailouts and it may seek to further distance itself from Merkel’s CDU by adopting a more euroskeptic stance.
And the difficulties the CDU faces in North Rhine-Westphalia mirror Merkel’s own electoral challenge as the FDP implodes.
“If the FDP cannot make it into parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia, I have no idea where this party is going to end up,” Andrea Roemmele, professor of political science at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, told GlobalPost.
“There is currently no natural coalition partner for the CDU that can get over 5 percent in the opinion polls,” she said.
That could spell disaster for Merkel in the upcoming federal election.
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Merkel can only remain chancellor past 2013 if she either manages to revive a coalition with the Social Democrats, whom she governed with from 2005 to 2009, or creates an unlikely alliance with the Greens. Either party might be easier to deal with than the unpredictable FDP, particularly on European issues.
Merkel will be hoping that the CDU’s high-profile leader in North-Rhine Westphalia, Federal Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen, will be able to push the party into first place in the state, giving it the first choice in forming a coalition with either the SPD or the Greens. However, both parties have made it clear that they would prefer to govern together.
A strong win by the Social Democrats and Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia in May could boost the parties’ chances of forming a federal government next year.
The Greens have already been burned by flirting with the CDU during the state election in Berlin late last year, only to see young voters, in particular, shun them in favor of the Pirates, an important new player on the German political scene.
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Merkel does, however, still hold some cards, aside from her own popularity. One is the increasingly fragmented political landscape in Germany. The SPD and Greens could find it hard to form a coalition if the Pirates do well in next year’s federal vote, and if their vote is also squeezed by the Left Party, which is particularly strong in the East.
Furthermore, whereas in North Rhine-Westphalia, the SPD premier Hannelore Kraft and the Green leader Sylvia Loehrmann have worked extremely well together, there is not the same level of warm feelings between the leaderships of the two parties at a national level.
And crucially, it is still far from certain which leading figure in the Social Democrats will go up against Merkel as the chancellor candidate. It is currently a three-way contest between former ministers Peer Steinbrueck and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and party leader Sigmar Gabriel. And although Kraft could also become a contender on the back of a strong performance in the May election, she insists she won’t leave North Rhine-Westphalia.
In any case, it would be hard to imagine her being able to challenge Merkel when it comes to her handling of the euro crisis, argues Roemmele. “Kraft doesn’t have any experience on the national level.”