Merkel’s Party Seeks to Woo FDP Voters as State Elections Loom

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party is making a grab for her coalition ally’s supporters at state level, a sign her Christian Democrats are already writing off Free Democratic chances of re-election nationally in 2013.

“I want to tell the FDP: Hey, you’ve got to do your job,” Saskia Ludwig, leader of the Christian Democratic Union in the eastern state of Brandenburg, said March 21 in an interview in the regional capital, Potsdam. “Otherwise we’ll have to look after your voters ourselves.”

Merkel’s CDU is loosening ties with its ally as it prepares to fight three state elections in eight weeks beginning with Saarland on March 25. Polls suggest the Free Democrats will fail to win parliamentary seats in any of the three regional parliaments, accelerating the party’s decline after it crashed out of five state assemblies last year.

The FDP is faring just as badly Germany-wide, giving Merkel no chance of winning a third term at the head of her current coalition in federal elections due in the fall of 2013. That makes a rerun of Merkel’s first-term alliance with the main opposition Social Democratic Party in a “grand coalition” increasingly probable, said Manfred Guellner, head of polling company Forsa.

“The grand-coalition model means trying to do things by consensus, and Germans are consensus-oriented,” Berlin-based Guellner said in a phone interview. “It would be smart for both the Christian Democrats and the SPD to get used to the idea.”

Higher Taxes

A Merkel alliance with the SPD would bring pressure to introduce higher corporate, property, income and inheritance taxes for Germany as well as financial transaction taxes, all of which are demanded in the SPD’s party program approved last December.

The SPD wants to raise the highest income-tax rate to 49 percent for people earning over 100,000 euros ($132,000). The present highest rate of 45 percent kicks in for people earning over 250,731 euros. The SPD also wants to impose limits on executive pay.

Merkel’s coalition with the Free Democrats has failed to gel since it came to power in 2009, as the parties clashed over policies from the euro-area debt crisis to energy and tax cuts. While the chancellor’s record-high approval ratings allow her to stand by her partner for now, party officials facing elections at state level don’t have that luxury.

Saarland Collapse

Saarland, the region bordering France and Luxembourg, may show what voters can expect in 2013. Elections this weekend are being held 2 1/2 years early after the CDU-led government dumped the Free Democrats in January. Saar Prime Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer blamed the FDP in a Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper interview for “dismantling itself,” saying it has “unreliable” leaders.

With polls showing the CDU and the state’s Social Democrats running neck and neck, both Kramp-Karrenbauer and the SPD state leader, Heiko Maas, say they want to form a grand coalition. The election will determine which party is the senior partner and fields the prime minister.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, the government collapsed this month after the FDP joined the CDU to vote down the state’s budget. Polls show the FDP below the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in the May 13 ballot. A Forsa poll yesterday gave the SPD and Greens a combined 50 percent in the state, which with almost a quarter of the country’s 82 million people is a bellwether for the respective parties’ national fortunes.

The FDP also faces ejection from the Schleswig-Holstein state parliament in elections on May 6, polls show.

Latest Polls

Nationally, the Free Democrats are at 3 percent, a Forsa poll showed yesterday. The FDP has been at 5 percent or less for the past 18 months after winning a record 14.6 percent in the 2009 German elections. Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc is at 36 percent, the SPD is at 26 percent and the Greens are at 15 percent. Forsa surveyed 2,504 people on March 12-16 and the margin of error was a much as 2.5 percentage points.

The FDP’s loss of support is partly due to Merkel’s party winning back the voters linked to Germany’s small-and medium-sized industries, Forsa’s Guellner said. The Mittelstand, family-owned companies typically with fewer than 500 employees, employ more than 70 percent of workers and contribute roughly half of the gross domestic product in Europe’s biggest economy.

CDU Brandenburg leader Ludwig said her party must make greater efforts to win over Mittelstand voters. That means slashing bureaucracy and paperwork required of companies and simplifying Germany’s tax system, she said, speaking in her office in the state parliament, which used to serve as a Prussian military officer training school and after World War II was the city’s communist party headquarters.

FDP leader Philipp Roesler, who is federal economy minister and vice chancellor to Merkel, said his party isn’t “exhausted at all” and will be “very successful” in the regional votes, according to an interview with ARD television shown on March 14.

That hasn’t stopped “many FDP business voters” from moving back to Merkel’s party from the FDP, said Guellner.

“The FDP’s national survival has never been at higher risk,” he said.

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