Cracks Widen in German Coalition

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Cracks Widen in German Coalition

Can Chancellor Merkel’s coalition government survive its full term?

Germany’s present coalition government has survived to mid-term. The burning question is, can it continue to survive another two years to reach its full term, or is the grand coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel destined to go the way of past attempts at coalition government in Germany and end in failure before its time is up?

Chancellor Merkel’s governing coalition in Germany got off to a rather shaky start back in 2006. Merkel herself, the Christian Democratic Union (cdu) candidate, only just scraped in ahead of her rival, Social Democratic Party (spd) leader Gerhard Schröder, with the narrowest of margins to take the chief seat in Germany and cobble together sufficient consensus from competing parties to form a government.

While not wanting to take anything away from Merkel’s performance since her assuming office in the top government job in Germany, it has to be said that she did have a dream run for most of her initial two years in office, courtesy of an overdue rebound in the previously recessionary German economy, together with her ability to steer attention away from the painful prospect of greatly needed economic reforms in that economy by concentrating on high-profile foreign-policy issues, many of which seemed to fall conveniently into her lap.

Added to this was the great pr performance put on by Germany in 2006, the year that country hosted the World Cup, and the first half of 2007, which was dominated by Germany’s turn at the rotational presidency of the European Union. The highlight of the latter was Merkel’s railroading the EU member states into agreeing to the Berlin Declaration to coincide with that city’s hosting of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the signing of the foundational treaty on which the EU has been built, the Treaty of Rome. All of the media hoopla surrounding these events gave Chancellor Merkel the image of powerfully strutting the world stage, and resulted in her being voted most popular politician in Europe.

But something happened toward the end of 2007 that has since presented a profound and ever increasing challenge to Merkel’s leadership.

In early November, Merkel’s senior coalition partner, Vice Chancellor Hans Muntefering, resigned from government service. This forced Chancellor Merkel to promote her coalition’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to the post of vice chancellor, placing immediately behind her back an official who did not quite see eye to eye with her on foreign-policy issues, the one area of her governance that had previously been seen as her strength. In fact, Steinmeier’s views on international relations are more akin to those of the chancellor’s old rival, Steinmeier’s old boss and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s old pal, Gerhard Schröder, than they are to the chancellor’s.

It has not taken long for Steinmeier to take advantage of his position. Within a month of his gaining the vice chancellorship he was off to Moscow to strengthen his ties with Russia. Then followed his unilateral stance on Syria, which immediately triggered an angry response from Merkel. United Press International reported, “The German government is not united on questions concerning its Middle East policy, it surfaced last week, after the country’s foreign minister came under fire for inviting his Syrian counterpart to Berlin. It’s no secret that German Chancellor Angela Merkel isn’t overly happy that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier invited Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. While Steinmeier posed for a photo-op with Moallem at the Foreign Ministry, Merkel, who used to run the show last year when it comes to foreign-policy issues, neither commented, nor did her foreign-policy adviser receive Moallem or anyone from his staff” (January 21).

It is becoming increasingly obvious to observers close to the scene that Frank-Walter Steinmeier is a mover and shaker intent on seeking higher office. As upi further reported, one such observer, Jan Techau, a foreign-policy analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations (a Berlin-based think tank), recently observed, “Last year, Merkel got most of the credit for foreign policy. Steinmeier now has to prepare for higher offices, and he has to sharpen his profile” (ibid.).

Three crucial German state elections are slated for early this year. Competition between Merkel’s cdu and Steinmeier’s spd is bound to be stiff, with Steinmeier being the most outstanding candidate offered by his party for the chancellorship for which all parties will be bidding in the 2009 federal elections.

Considering the list of disagreements between Chancellor Merkel and Vice Chancellor/Foreign Minister Steinmeier, this is a political marriage that is simply not destined to last. The only question is, really, when will Steinmeier make his move? Will he be content to walk behind Merkel, biding his time till 2009, casting stones into the foreign-policy melee, or will some event or controversial issue trigger peremptory action by him in an effort to seize the chancellor’s throne earlier?

The trigger could be division within the coalition on any one or more of the mounting issues on which the parties and the two top executives of German government disagree. Already it’s a formidable list in the foreign-policy arena: Turkey, Syria, Iran, Russia, China, the United States—issues involving Germany’s relations with each of these countries presently provide a platform for division between the parties making up the grand coalition of center-left and center-right.

Then there’s the wild card of Germany’s economy. Barely having emerged in 2007 from years of recession, the German economy is now feeling itself threatened in the volatile climate fired by the subprime mortgage meltdown. If this begins to hit German employment, if the strong euro persists in getting stronger, hitting German exports hard and transferring jobs overseas, Chancellor Merkel will be faced with a clamor from within the coalition as warring factions with opposing economic ideologies vie for the adoption of their policies in efforts to fix the problem.

A third challenge, in addition to foreign policy and the domestic economy, that Chancellor Merkel faces, is the continuing rapid rise and the detrimental influence on the traditional German way of life of the rapidly increasing Islamic enclaves within Germany which are failing to integrate successfully into German society. This is creating tensions and undercurrents that could well prove explosive in the near future. A recent report that the Catholic Church intends consolidating its congregations in the northern diocese of Hildersheim, even offering for sale its properties to Muslim groups, has further stirred concern at the encroachment of Islamic culture and religion on traditional German values and traditions.

Germany’s extreme tolerance of the problem of Islam in its midst flies in the face of the traditional manner in which the nation has dealt with minority groups that it has perceived as detrimental to the purity of its society in the past. The tensions being created within German society by the Islamic penetration cannot continue without the fuse of racism being lit—and where race becomes a burning question, Germany has a history of dealing with it in a decisive way. The Islamic question will bubble away within the cauldron of Germany’s coalition politics, deepening the fissures which are likely to crack this government wide open before election year.

Considering the collection of volatile issues facing it, it’s going to be a troubling year for Germany’s coalition government and thus for Chancellor Merkel, whose glory days are now well and truly over.

Yet, to reverse the idiom, “one man’s poison is another man’s meat,” a struggling chancellor could provide just the bate for an ambitious vice chancellor to work to further the political divide within Germany’s present government to his own advantage. Watch for the cut and thrust of coalition politics to continue to weaken Angela Merkel and strengthen the leadership of Steinmeier—in particular in the foreign affairs arena—where it appears he already has the chancellor on the run.

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