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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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Foreign minister Steinmeier, to his credit, also backed the current ISAF mission during a recent special parliamentary debate, thus resisting the temptation to pursue a pacifist "get-out-of-Afghanistan-now" approach which is embraced by about 60 percent of the German electorate. For better or worse, Steinmeier is a technocrat who lacks the ruthless opportunism and political killer instincts of his mentor and former boss, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. That being said, Steinmeier vowed just a few days ago that, if elected chancellor, he would try to create the conditions by 2013 so that Germanys' military withdrawal from Afghanistan can begin. While the foreign minister rejected the notion that he has set a fixed date for a future Bundeswehr pull-out, Steinmeier's latent political message to the voters is clear: This is not an open-ended commitment, we have an exit strategy, and under my leadership our boys will definitely come home earlier than if Angela Merkel remains chancellor.

Finally, while the race is still very fluid, a few key observations can already be made: First, Merkel's CDU/CSU parties will surely defend their position as the biggest parliamentary group in the new Bundestag, most likely with a double-digit lead over its SPD rival. Second, a center-right CDU/CSU-FDP coalition remains a distinct possibility, even though the latest polls suggest an erosion of support for Merkel's putative coalition partner. Sensing the dead-heat, the chancellor has already made it clear that she would even form an FDP coalition with just a one-seat majority. Third, another edition of the current CDU/CSU-SPD "Grand Coalition" is always possible, and is especially favored by moderate SPD folks who fear that, once in opposition, their party will veer sharply to the left. Fourth, a CDU/CSU-led coalition with the FDP and the Greens would be very difficult to pull off politically, but should not be ruled out entirely. After all, one should never underestimate the ambitions of two parties that have already been waiting to get back into national government for a combined 15 years. Finally, Steinmeier's only way to the chancellorship--short of a pact with the post-Communist "Left Party" which he has categorically rejected--is a potential coalition with the FDP and the Greens. However, the political obstacles involved are extremely difficult to overcome, especially as a sudden FDP alliance with the SPD would destroy the party by driving away many of the FDP's economic conservatives. To sum things up, Chancellor Merkel is bound to stay in office, the big question is what kind of coalition government she will lead.

Ulf Gartzke, Washington director of the CSU-affiliated Hanns Seidel Foundation, is a contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD blog. This article reflect his personal views.