German election: Merkel unruffled by uncertainties

Angela Merkel gives a campaign speech Image copyright AFP

BERLIN: I watched Angela Merkel the other night as she arrived on stage in the rain. From the back of the crowd there was a ripple of protest.

She narrowed her eyes and calmly assessed the numbers of potential hecklers. She made a brief reference to them but they did not trouble her. Little has ruffled her campaign.

Its strategy has been to smooth away all the edges of controversy, to reassure voters that their future is safe in the hands of "Mutti", the leader they call "Mummy".

In truth, as the election enters its final week there are some nerves amongst Mrs Merkel's supporters in the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). They, like their leader, don't like uncertainty. The complicated arithmetic of a German campaign leaves the door ajar for the unexpected.

Bavarian boost

The result from Sunday's state elections in Bavaria contains both encouraging and unsettling news for the Merkel campaign. Her conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) allies polled strongly, winning enough seats to have an absolute majority. CSU leader Horst Seehofer declared "every second Bavarian man and woman voted for us".

It gives Mrs Merkel's national campaign momentum. It is reported there was "joy in Konrad-Adenauer-Haus", Mrs Merkel's HQ, at the result.

At pre-election rallies Mr Seehofer had described Bavaria as "the gateway to Paradise". The Bavarian political story is remarkable. One party has dominated its politics for 56 years, offering "laptops and lederhosen", a successful mix of the modern with tradition.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Horst Seehofer has delivered the big conservative win he promised Angela Merkel

But Mrs Merkel's current coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), suffered what their leader described as a "heavy defeat". Gaining just 3% of the vote excludes them from the Bavarian state assembly. If they poll as badly at the national level next week, then Angela Merkel would lose one of her key coalition partners and calculations would change.

Some of her supporters might switch their votes to the FDP to push them above the threshold of 5%, so that they qualify for seats in the Bundestag. But that can be a risky strategy, potentially weakening the CDU vote.

"Those who want Angela Merkel must vote for Angela Merkel," said Armin Laschet, the deputy head of the party.

The leader of the Free Democrats is warning that if his party is excluded from parliament then the door opens for a Social Democrat/Green alliance with the far-left - even though the Social Democrats have ruled that out.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Free Democrats' vote is on a knife-edge

Without the Free Democrats, the more likely scenario is that Angela Merkel could be forced into a "grand coalition" with the opposition Social Democrats (SPD). She has shared power with them before and the polls suggest that a majority of Germans would favour a coalition between the main parties.

Such an arrangement suggests stability, but it would be much harder to enforce party discipline. It could be a fractious partnership.

'Small steps'

Another unknown is how the anti-euro party Alternative fuer Deutschland will poll. They currently hover around 3% but some suspect their real support might be higher. They say that Germany should pay for no more eurozone bailouts. They suggest there could be a northern and a southern euro.

Their leader declares a return to the Deutschemark is an option. They are shunned by the political mainstream. Polls indicate that more than 60% of Germans support Mrs Merkel's European policy. But a strong vote next Sunday could further disturb calculations.

Germany and this campaign frustrates outsiders: the lack of passion, the absence of serious argument about German power and its responsibility towards Europe. But Germany is being true to itself. It is Europe's reluctant colossus.

"A huge country that prefers to behave like a small one," as Time magazine recently suggested.

Angela Merkel governs by "small steps". She disguises her hand as most people who grew up in East Germany learnt to do in the presence of the Stasi.

Over Europe she prefers to inch forward. She offers solidarity but insists on reform. She brushes aside calls for common debt.

She favours a banking union but not necessarily with a common resolution fund to wind up failing banks. It is banking union-lite.

In 2012 she was the advocate of "more Europe". Now she is not so sure, raising the possibility that some powers could be returned to the national level. Even though the SPD has argued for less austerity and for a Marshall Plan to raise up the ailing economies of southern Europe, there is little indication that a grand coalition would change Mrs Merkel's innate caution.

What is entirely absent from the hustings is the big question: in order to save the euro, has Germany authored a policy that condemns parts of southern Europe to high unemployment and stagnation?

Some here in Berlin argue that there are signs that the medicine is working - but the verdict is not yet in and the future of the European project depends on it.

It seems such big questions are not for this campaign, but they will resurface. Greece awaits a further rescue. Slovenia may well need a bailout. Portugal and Cyprus, almost certainly, will need further support. Italy cannot escape its chronic instability despite the best efforts of Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

All of that lies in the future and, it seems, does not trouble either the politicians or the voters. Incrementalism rarely stirs an electorate and Angela Merkel understands that.