German rivals trade smiles, not barbs

January 13, 2009


German Chancellor Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice  Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier will battle each other in September’s federal election. But on Tuesday, it was hard to imagine the German odd couple campaigning against each other just a few months from now. The leaders of the two rival parties, locked in their loveless grand coalition since 2005, sat next to each other for 90 minutes, smiling politely as they jointly defended a new economic stimulus package their two ruling parties welded together.

“The campaign will start early enough,” said Steinmeier, who also is Germany’s foreign minister. “What we have presented here shows that the parties in this coalition act responsibly.” Merkel, nodding approvingly in response to several of  Steinmeier’s “we’re-on-the-same-team” type of answers at the nationally televisioned news conference, added: “This is a good package. Everybody has made their contribution.” 

Those looking for some pre-election darts being flung were disappointed. It was all smiles between the future rivals. Steinmeier and Merkel are used to presenting a common German policy line at international meetings, such as European Union summits in Brussels. But the two rarely appear together at news conferences at home, where their parties’ domestic platforms can differ more markedly. 

Their united front on Tuesday offered a curious start to Germany’s “super election year”, which features five state polls as well as September’s federal election. The campaigns are expected to highlight their differences on economic policy. Both Steinmeier’s Social Democrats (SPD) and Merkel’s conservatives (CDU) had stressed their different economic priorities ahead of six-hour long talks on Monday that produced the new 50-billion euro stimulus package

But on Tuesday, Merkel and Steinmeier seemed content to celebrate the package as a joint effort and only referred to their parties’ specific contributions in passing references. To the uninitiated it was sometimes hard to imagine they were from different parties about to fight over the future of Germany. Merkel called the package a “wise mix”, specifically mentioning tax cuts her conservatives managed to push through against the SPD’s initial opposition. Steinmeier, by contrast, predictably pointed out the relief for families and workers with lower incomes, which the conservatives had resisted ahead of the talks. 

Both the SPD and CDU have said they would rather avoid another four years of grand coalition rule after September’s vote, with the conservatives hoping for a tie-up with the Free Democrats and the SPD preferring an alliance with the Greens. But pressed at the news conference for details on what each of them would have done better under their preferred government alliance, both Merkel and Steinmeier were evasive: they opted instead to defend the current government. 

“In this extraordinary situation, we have the duty to do our job well,” Merkel said, although she added cryptically: “That doesn’t mean that other constellations cannot act responsibly too.” “We did what was necessary in this government,” Steinmeier said, earning another approving nod from Merkel, who sat next to him. Steinmeier lags Merkel in opinion polls and some analysts say his role as her vice chancellor complicates his campaign because he finds it rather awkward to attack the leader of his own government. 

So when will Germany’s main two candidates for the chancellorship take off the gloves and start really battling it out for the country’s top job? How long will this united front last?

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