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Can Merkel Make It?

Germany's national election heats up.

12:00 AM, Sep 17, 2009 • By ULF GARTZKE
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Ten days before the Bundestag (federal) elections scheduled for September 27, the race pitting Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) against her foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is suddenly tightening up. For a long time, the conventional wisdom in Germany had been that Angela Merkel--boosted by strong personal approval ratings--would be able to lead the conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union parties to easy victory, join forces with the free-market FDP, and throw the unpopular "Grand Coalition" government with the left-wing SPD party into the dustbin of history.

Given the personal political styles of Merkel and Steinmeier, and the fact that both are currently sharing power in Berlin, the election campaign has been for the most part rather dull and uneventful, lacking the kind of sharp, polarizing clashes over Iraq or taxation policy that one could see during the 2002 and 2005 campaigns. No wonder that 25 to 30 percent of the voters have not yet made up their mind about which party they will eventually support. This time, in essence, Merkel has tried to capitalize on the "Chancellor bonus", successfully portraying herself as a middle-of-the-road "mother-of-the-nation" type who will make sure that the world's top exporter quickly recovers from the current economic crisis.

"No experiments" is pretty much the leitmotif of Angela Merkel's re-election campaign. Economic conservatives, however, are very disappointed that Merkel has decided to play it safe, opting against pursuing any far-reaching structural reforms and tax cuts for fear that left-wing political opponents could denounce her as a cold-hearted economic "neo-liberal". Germany's GDP is forecast to contract by more than 6 percent this year and unemployment--currently held down by government-subsidized part-time job schemes--is set to rise again above 4 million by 2010. While German consumer spending remains surprisingly resilient and incoming industrial orders have gone up sharply in recent months, the shockwaves of the economic meltdown will hit many people with full force next year.

Foreign minister Steinmeier, for his part, has tried to run as an economic populist, calling for, among other things, strict limits on executive compensation, a general minimum wage, higher taxes for the rich, and a new levy on stock market transactions in an effort to mobilize his SPD base and woo voters away from the surging rival post-Communist "Left Party"--Die Linke. His clumsy attempt to get political mileage out of the Opel crisis, however, was thwarted by the chancellor, who managed to keep this potentially sensitive issue under control by helping to broker a last-minute Canadian-Russian rescue deal for the troubled GM subsidiary.

On the foreign policy front, a deadly air strike on two Taliban-hijacked tanker trucks in Kunduz on September 4--called in by German forces and carried out by U.S. fighter jets--prompted a massive barrage of domestic and international criticism vis-à-vis Berlin's handling of this particular incident and, by implication, the Afghan mission in general. Afghanistan, a topic that both Merkel and Steinmeier had deliberately tried to keep out of the campaign, was suddenly front and center, especially as more and more details emerged about the civilian casualties involved. However, Chancellor Merkel quickly went on the political offensive and strongly defended the Bundeswehr's more than 4,000-strong ISAF deployment. Merkel was also unusually blunt in hitting back at her critics--including key allies like the United States and France--and made it clear that she opposes making premature judgments and jumping to conclusions before all results of the ongoing NATO investigation into the air strike are known.