Global News Journal
Beyond the World news headlines
Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leader of the opposition Social Democrats squared off in one of the more riveting debates in parliament seen in ages on Wednesday, treating their respective camps to some fiery rhetoric that may galvanize support and help each side recover from steady erosions in opinion polls.
After SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel threw down the gauntlet and spent 40 highly entertaining minutes ripping into Merkel and her centre-right government, the chancellor rose to the challenge — spending the next 40 minutes with a spirited defence of the performance since taking power 10 months ago and attacking the centre-left opposition for such things as putting Germany’s long-term energy security at risk with “ideologically driven energy policies.”
Merkel, who may well face off against Gabriel in the next federal election due in 2013, whipped out a drop-dead argument that will probably make it difficult for anyone from either the SPD or from inside her own somewhat disenchanted conservative party to knock her out of office: unemployment has fallen by nearly two million to about three million since she took office in 2005.
Merkel’s popularity has nevertheless plunged since her re-election last year – due in part to incessant squabbling within the coalition and a perception her government has made little headway in moving the country forward. The centre-right government trails the centre-left opposition by about 10 points in opinion polls, an astonishing reversal of fortunes after they won the election last September by about 15 points.
“The most important thing is that the labour market is in robust shape,” Merkel, 56, said to cheers from her centre-right coalition of Christian Democrats and liberal Free Democrats sitting on the right half of the parliament floor who were clearly relishing their leader on the attack for a change. “Unemployment has fallen back to the level it was at before the financial crisis started two years ago. Five years ago it was nearly five million. This year we’ll possibly slip below the three million mark. That’s the mark of success for this Christian-Liberal coalition. We’re the growth engine of Europe.”
Gabriel, 52, had opened the debate in fine form, accusing Merkel of being a lapdog to lobbyists – her government gave hugely unpopular tax breaks to hotel owners and defied public opinion by agreeing to the demands of utilities to extend the use of nuclear energy. Gabriel also criticized what he called an increasingly unfair distribution of wealth in Germany under the centre-right government and the government’s habit of “giving tax breaks to the wrong people.”
As the sun started to set on the west side of the Reichstag on Wednesday evening — and perhaps on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right government as well — delegates to the Bundesversammlung (Federal Assembly) began switching to beer from the preferred beverage earlier in the day — coffee, water and apple juice.
There was an unmistakeable air of “Endzeitstimmung” (doomsday atmosphere) on the comfortable rooftop terrace of the historic German parliament building, where the catering is superb and the view of Berlin breathtaking.
The conservative delegates on the Reichstag roof were easy to spot — they were the ones with worried looks on their faces after a couple dozen unidentified “rats” from within their ranks twice failed in votes during the afternoon to give Merkel the votes she needed to get her candidate elected.
The conservatives were drinking their beer and trying to forget the day’s humiliation before going into battle for a third and final round later in the evening.