After the recent peak of political crisis in Greece and the forced separation of Merkozy, Green Party leader Jürgen Trittin proclaimed “Merkel’s Law” in a parliamentary debate on May 10, implying that any association with the chancellor is highly likely to lead to electoral defeat. Only three days later, Merkel’s close aide and Minister of Environment Norbert Röttgen did not only fall prey to Trittin’s prediction, he met his political Waterloo as a gubernatorial candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia’s state elections. Unprecedented in the last seven years of Merkel’s rule, she dismissed Röttgen, the main representative of her course of modernization and opening the conservatives to the Greens, from office and added a new premise to Merkel’s Law: God save the Queen.
Once considered a “Love marriage,” Merkel’s conservative-liberal coalition constantly finds itself in public quarrels and counseling for months, which repeatedly spills over into state politics and sideshows. The dramatic downfall of her liberal coalition partner (FDP) in voters’ opinions reduced, on the other hand, FDP’s capacity to interfere with the chancellor’s policy and the likelihood of it abandoning the conservative party (CDU) in favor of a Social Democratic-Green-liberal coalition. Merkel also seemed personally untouched by the ongoing inability of Europe to escape from the financial crisis, constant infighting among the members of her conservative-liberal coalition and decreasing support for the government among the population. In contrast, the latter rewarded her handling of the financial crisis in particular with approval ratings of more than 60 percent.
Therefore, the decision of Saarland Governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to break off the conservative-liberal-Green coalition in January was widely seen as a sign of increased assertiveness toward the FDP. Criticism by liberal cabinet members that this “hostile behavior” was likely to worsen CDU-FDP relations in Berlin was rebuffed by Merkel, stating that the local conditions of Germany’s smallest state were by no means applicable to the federal level—neither was the end of FDP’s presence in the state parliament after the new elections.
When Federal President Christian Wulff was forced to resign over corruption claims in February 2012, it was also a blow to the chancellor who had praised him as “rooted in a value system providing orientation.” During the scandal, and according to many, Merkel was too hesitant to either back him while he was facing the public storm or to pressure him to resign in order to avoid damage to the office. The government’s inability to find a new candidate and the subsequent election of the opposition’s 2010 candidate Joachim Gauck in March was not only a chance for them to gloat over their belated victory. What made it especially painful for Merkel was that his election was facilitated by a very public alignment of the liberals with the opposition—leaving her out in the rain. Both parties, however, quickly provided assurances that government stability would not be affected, and despite ongoing quarrels about several of the government’s most important domestic projects in this legislature—energy change, a new benefit system for parents, data retention, and the easing of income taxes—Merkel was able to divert public attention and voters’ frustration toward her coalition partners.
It’s Getting Lonely at the Top
While this strategy seemed to have worked for the time being, it came to its limits in recent state elections in Schleswig-Holstein and especially in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). As the liberals experienced a moment of resurrection in both elections, it became more difficult for the conservative party to put the blame for electoral defeat on the FDP’s unpopularity. Merkel thus employed a strategy of “regionalization” by ascribing gloomy poll numbers and the ensuing historical defeat to regional and personal factors—rejecting the idea that the elections would be a vote on federal policy. In an attempt to build a firewall around the chancellor, liberal and conservative party leaders opened a chivvy after Röttgen, resulting in his dismissal by Merkel on May 16, arguing that his political position had become too weak to deal with the energy change.
It is questionable how successful both the strategy of regionalizing and personalizing coalition instability and electoral defeat will turn out to be for Merkel in the long run. First, state elections in NRW, Germany’s biggest state, are generally seen as “small federal elections”—it was the defeat of the Social Democratic Party in this very state that brought down the Schröder government in 2005. Second, if a candidate, in this case Röttgen, representing crucial projects and policies of the federal government—and who was known to the electorate in NRW primarily because of this—doesn’t stand a chance in state elections, referring only to local conditions and personal failure seems rather shortsighted.
Major elections are coming up in the state and federal levels in 2013 and in order to get re-elected, Merkel needs to bolster her Madame Europe credentials by also achieving policy successes on the domestic level. By firing Röttgen—which was harshly criticized by several CDU leaders—and retreating from her modernization course, Merkel returned to the domestic arena with a bang and closed the ranks of the coalition for now. At the same time, she might have tied her own political future to the domestic success of the current government.