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Merkel flirts with FDP as German election heats up

May 24, 2009

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her would-be allies, the opposition Free Democrats, did not waste any time putting their spin on the re-election of President Horst Koehler on Saturday – a razor-thin victory for the conservatives over the rival candidate put up by their coalition partners, the Social Democrats, in a vote four months before the parliamentary election.

Mere minutes after Koehler squeaked out a one-vote victory in the 1,224-seat Federal Assembly to win a second term as Germany’s ceremonial head of state, a beaming Merkel popped up on national television alongside FDP chairman Guido Westerwelle for a joint impromptu news conference rich with symbolism; it was the first time they appeared together in such a formal setting since the 2005 campaign.

“It’s no secret that we are working on achieving a majority together,” said Merkel at the briefing with the opposition leader while her coalition partners, the SPD, licked their wounds. “Today was certainly not a bad day as far as that goal is concerned,” added the chancellor, whose hopes for a centre-right coalition with the FDP after the 2005 election were spoiled when her conservatives got hit by a powerful downdraught at the very end of the campaign.

Westerwelle and Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union, stood next to Merkel and called Koehler’s narrowest of victories an important “signal” for the September parliamentary election.

But was it?

Aside from the fact that all three previous incumbents who ran for a second term were re-elected, Koehler’s victory in 2004 had no tangible impact on the 2005 parliamentary election. The CDU/CSU and FDP also elected Koehler in 2004, when he beat the same SPD candidate Gesine Schwan for the first time. They all hailed that a harbinger of a new centre-right federal coalition as well. But a year later they fell short of winning a majority in the parliamentary election — and the CDU was forced to settle for a loveless grand coalition with the SPD.

Opinion polls this year suggest the centre-right coalition could win between 46 and 50 percent of the vote. That might be just enough for a majority and a renewal of the coalition that last ruled for 16 years (1982-98) under Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Or that might fall short again — with roughly the other half of the electorate casting their ballots for left of centre parties like the SPD, Greens and Left party.

If anything, Koehler’s breathtakingly narrow win on Saturday was an indication of how close the race for the chancellery could be — and how complicated the coalition-building after the September 27 ballot might end up. It took nearly two months in 2005 for the CDU and SPD to cool down enough from the campaign to forge a coalition.

Will 2009 be any different?

Because the votes in Federal Assembly are based on previous election results, the real “signal” emerging from Saturday’s presidential vote might well be merely that the 2009 parliamentary election will be an extremely close battle and the outcome is far from certain. The bottom line is: If Koehler had lost it would have been a major embarrassment for Merkel. He won, as expected.

That race is over. Let the real race begin.

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