Analysis

Angela Merkel, too powerful to fail?

07.01.13 @ 09:17

  1. By Valentina Pop
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BERLIN - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's New Year speech had a rather unusual opening: "2013 will be a year of many 50 year-celebrations. Fifty years ago, the New Year's classic [sketch] 'Dinner for one' was recorded in Hamburg, the first Bundesliga [football] match took place and the German inventor Walter Bruch presented his colour-TV system named PAL."

  • Merkel's bid for re-election as most powerful EU leader comes against a backdrop of weak partners and mistake-prone challengers (Photo: s_zeimke)

She then struck a more serious tone, mentioning the fiftieth anniversary of John F Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech and, lastly, the signature of the Elysee treaty between France and Germany pledging reconciliation after two world wars.

The British sketch "Dinner for one" she chose to mention says something about the chancellor's appetite for irony.

Broadcast for decades as part of the German New Year's TV programme, it portrays an old lady having dinner and drinks with a butler who has to impersonate her four deceased friends sitting around the table.

In 2011, the German public TV ARD did a parody of the sketch with Merkel featuring in the role of the old lady and Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, as her submissive butler during one of the countless euro-crisis summits.

"The problem is, there are no more important statesmen left in Europe, there is only Madame Merkel," the mock-Sarkozy complained.

This year, in tone with the general elections in autumn, ARD did a remake of the parody with Merkel's Social-Democratic contender Peer Steinbrueck in the role of the butler.

Both images bear some truth.

In Europe, Merkel is the uncontested leader and at home no other politician is as popular as she is.

In spite of all grumbling of French President Francois Hollande and street protests in Athens or Lisbon, her vision of a "step by step" reform process, of "homework" before "solidarity" has prevailed.

Be it banking union or adjustments to the Greek bailout, nothing can be agreed until Germany nods first. And Germans respect and trust her for that.

To those predicting a better 2013 - both European Commission chief Barroso and France's Hollande recently proclaimed the worst of the euro-crisis is over - Merkel warned of troubled times still to come.

"The first effects of the reforms are showing. But we still need a lot of patience, the sovereign debt crisis is by far not over. And more needs to be done to supervise financial markets, the world has not yet learned its lesson from the devastating financial crisis of 2008," she said in the New Year's address.

With allies like these

If among EU leaders, Merkel seems unchallenged, on a national level, her high approval rates (over 70%) indicate the same. But her party - currently leading the polls at around 40 percent - will still have to find a coalition partner after the general elections. And that is already proving to be quite a headache.

Merkel's current coalition partner, the Liberal Free Democrats (FDP), are in a downwards spiral and busy tearing each other apart.

Philipp Roesler, the country's economy minister and FDP's party leader, is having trouble quelling the voices of dissent within the party. On Sunday (6 January), during a party meeting, Roesler was booed and somebody from the audience shouted "you're an asshole."

"God may have invented the FDP only to test us," Merkel quipped last month at her own party congress, citing a line from a satire show.

With regional elections in Lower Saxony on 20 January, the FDP's freefall may also cost her the loss of a respected governor from her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who needs the Liberals to score at least five percent to remake the local coalition.

But in a press conference on Saturday, Merkel refused to draw any parallel between what will happen in Lower Saxony in two weeks' time and the general elections in the fall.

That is because her options remain open for other constellations - another "Grand Coalition" with the Social-Democrats or even an alliance with the Greens, who are riding high in the polls and have moved more to the centre of the political spectrum.

Merkel's clumsy contender

Meanwhile, the chances of the opposition Social Democrats winning the election with Peer Steinbrueck as their chancellor candidate appear to be dwindling. A poll end of December ranked him fourth among Germany's most popular politicians, at 54 percent, almost twenty points behind Merkel.

Dubbed "Problem-Peer" by German media, Steinbrueck is an economist who served as Merkel's finance minister during the Grand Coalition of 2005-2009. He is also a protegee of ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

But as Liberal politician Rainer Bruederle put it on Sunday, "between Schmidt and Steinbrueck there is a universe of faux-pas."

In October, Steinbrueck got into trouble when it emerged that he had concealed some of his revenues from speaking at bankers' conferences and other gatherings.

Barely was that scandal silenced when the ex-minister made claimed that chancellors do not earn enough in Germany - a remark that was met with widespread bemusement, if not irritation.

For now, Steinbrueck firmly rejects any prospect of ever redoing the Grand Coalition with Angela Merkel. But if his series of mishaps continues, this may be the inevitable outcome for his party.

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