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Merkel's Refusal to Apologize to the Pope Could Backfire

10:47 AM, Mar 30, 2009 • By ULF GARTZKE
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected demands by Cardinal Joachim Meissner, the Catholic Archbishop of Cologne, that she apologize for her sharp criticism of Pope Benedict XVI's handling of the Bishop Williamson scandal in early February. In essence, Cardinal Meissner argued that Merkel's unprecedented and ill-conceived attacks on the pope were totally unjustified as the Vatican had already publicly called on the Holocaust-denying Bishop to retract his statements, making it clear that they were completely unacceptable. Also, prior to Merkel's attacks, Pope Benedict XVI had also declared his "full and indisputable solidarity" with Jews and warned against the dangers of denying the Holocaust.

Chancellor Merkel did not even feel compelled to directly address the cardinal's personal appeal for an apology but preferred to have her spokesman issue a short statement: "Everything that needed to be said has been said." Rather than making even a conciliatory gesture short of an apology--i.e., issuing a statement indicating that the chancellor deeply respects the pope, that she did not mean to attack him personally and that she regrets any misunderstandings that may have occurred over the Williamson controversy--the leader of Germany's ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party seems to believe that she can afford to ignore if not antagonize important parts of her conservative CDU/CSU member and voter base.That's a risky course of action to say the least. Given that 2009 will be a year of crucial electoral tests--ranging, inter alia, from European Parliament elections in June to several state elections, and, most importantly, general Bundestag elections at the end of September--Chancellor Merkel's pope-bashing could soon seriously backfire. As Cardinal Meissner confirmed, there seems to be more than just anecdotal evidence that a number of Catholic and even Protestant CDU members have left the party in protest over the chancellor's recent actions. It is safe to assume that these people will stay at home and not cast their vote for the CDU in the various upcoming electoral contests.

Looking ahead, the crucial Bundestag elections in September--which will pit CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel against Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, candidate of her current left-wing SPD "Grand Coalition" partner--are bound to further tighten in the coming six months. It is important to remember that Germany's last two general elections were true cliffhangers.

Back in 2002, conservative CSU party leader Edmund Stoiber lost to SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder by only 9,000 votes--a razor-thin margin in a country of 82 million people. Back in 2005, Merkel's initial twenty-percentage point lead in the polls over her rival left-wing SPD party was reduced to close to zero in less than four months. It is an often-overlooked fact that in terms of absolute Bundestag seats, the CDU/CSU parties fared worse in 2005 (under Merkel) than in 2002 (under Stoiber). The only reason that Angela Merkel became chancellor of Germany is that the SPD did even worse in 2005, thus allowing the CDU/CSU parties to eke out a narrow plurality of seats over their current "Grand Coalition" partner.

Right now, Chancellor Merkel is certainly the favorite to win the next general Bundestag elections on September 27. But six months are an eternity in politics. If Merkel loses her re-election bid this fall, German conservatives will certainly point to her pope-bashing as well as other instances of Merkel's antagonizing her conservative CDU/CSU base--ranging from her backing down during a recent clash with Poland as well as for her handling of the current economic crisis--as decisive factors in the chancellor's downfall.