The Urgent Question for Remarkable Merkel: Can She Form a Government?

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Michael Kappeler / dpa / Corbis

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacts to first results of the federal elections at the CDU party headquarters in Berlin on Sept. 22, 2013

Angela Merkel didn’t just win Germany’s Sept. 22 parliamentary elections — she triumphed. Her Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, emerged strengthened, by far the largest bloc in the Bundestag, the lower house, falling only five seats short of an overall majority. Only one postwar Chancellor has done better: in 1957, the CDU’s Konrad Adenauer returned to power with 50.2% of the vote, buoyed by Germany’s so-called economic miracle. He campaigned on the promise to maintain a steady course, deploying a simple, two-word election slogan: “Keine experimente,” no experiments.

Merkel’s slogan, “Gemeinsam erfolgreich,” or successful together, delivered much the same message. Her opponents tried to undermine her popularity by pointing out how few laws she had passed during her first two terms in office; Germany needs big structural reforms to remain competitive, they argued. But it’s clear that a majority of Germans don’t want experiments. They voted to retain Merkel and for the continuation of the slow, steady, deliberative leadership that has helped Germany navigate some of the rougher waters of the euro-zone crisis. Merkel’s economic miracle has seen Germany post a budget surplus on the back of its return to growth as most other European nations have stalled or struggled.

As she celebrated at the CDU’s election-night party, she called out to her supporters, “Tomorrow back to work!” Although the revelers shouted back, “The day after tomorrow!”, there’s no time to enjoy the afterglow of victory. The crisis — and the danger to Germany’s export-driven prosperity — is far from over. Merkel’s inbox is overflowing with problems she will be expected to give a lead in solving, including Greece’s urgent need for a third aid package and Slovenia’s faltering efforts to avoid a bailout.

Yet there’s another problem she must tackle first, and that’s to form a viable government.

She can count herself lucky not to have secured a slim majority, which would have put her at the mercy of every rebellious backbencher as she mustered her troops for crucial votes. But Merkel’s options for coalition partners are limited. The Free Democrats, who served with her during her last term, crashed spectacularly at the elections, failing even to achieve the 5% of votes necessary to enter Parliament.

Merkel governed in her first term in a grand coalition with her largest rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD). They too suffered at the ballot box after their association with Merkel and fear that a return to coalition with her will damage their party in the long term. They may be right. Proximity to Merkel has proved politically fatal to rivals within her own party, including her mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whom she was key to ousting when scandal damaged the CDU’s ratings. Her popularity is also such that her supporter base — which extends far beyond the ranks of traditional CDU voters — tends to attribute every success to her and blame every failing on the government of the day.

The Green party, Merkel’s only other potential coalition partner, is so weakened from a poor electoral performance that its leaders are reported to be discussing resignation. If there are leaders to conduct coalition talks, they will know entering into an alliance with Merkel’s conservatives risks alienating some of their left-leaning core voters. Both the SPD and the Greens would approach any coalition talks with the determination to extort significant concessions from Merkel in order to mitigate future pain.

Yet the concessions they might seek — raising taxes on the wealthy, rolling back a key child-care reform implemented by Merkel’s last government, introducing a nationwide minimum wage — may prove too much for Merkel to accept. The negotiations that led to her grand coalition after the 2005 elections lasted two months. This time around, negotiations look set to prove tougher and may conceivably end in failure — and fresh elections. These are uncertain times indeed for a continent looking to its most powerful and most popular leader for direction.