German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ski injury disrupts the start of her third term as her government bickers over policy less than a month after being sworn in.
Merkel, who appeared at an appointment on crutches today, is under doctors’ orders to spend time lying down, opening the door for her Social Democratic coalition partner to raise its profile during her public absence. The chancellor’s tumble while cross-country skiing in Switzerland over the Christmas holidays suggests that the start of 2014 will be marked by jostling for position within her coalition, even before it deals with pressing policy such as Germany’s energy overhaul.
“It’s clearly not a kick-start,” Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING Group NV in Brussels, said in an interview. “If things escalate and worsen, Merkel is much more needed to calm down and restore a functioning working atmosphere.”
Merkel, 59, spent almost three months nailing down a coalition with Sigmar Gabriel’s Social Democrats after defeating them in September’s federal election, then went on her Alpine vacation. Her pelvis fracture means she has to lie low for another three weeks and use crutches, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said yesterday.
In her televised New Year’s speech on Dec. 31, Merkel said “there is a lot to do to keep Germany strong in the future,” including ensuring solid government finances and continuing her push to replace nuclear power with renewable energy in Europe’s biggest economy.
At her first public event since falling, Merkel shortened an appearance with carolers at the chancellery in Berlin today, telling them “I can’t stand quite as well.” She shifted her weight off her left foot while steadying herself with her black-handled crutches.
Skirmishing within Merkel’s coalition has already begun, as the SPD and her Christian Social Union Bavarian ally took advantage of the chancellor’s absence to clash on topics such as immigration from southern Europe and rules for Internet and phone data retention.
Ronald Pofalla, Merkel’s former chief of staff at the chancellery, also became a focus of attention after media reports that he may take a lobbying job at state-controlled railroad Deutsche Bahn AG.
The chancellor believes that “switching between politics and business” should be allowed, though with “a certain time lag,” Seibert said in response to questions at a government news briefing in Berlin yesterday.
Merkel governed on crutches for a time during the euro-area debt crisis after knee surgery in April 2011. In January 1992, a year after Helmut Kohl named her minister for women and youth in his first cabinet after German reunification, she broke her leg and was hospitalized in Berlin. The then-chancellor comforted her at her bedside, Merkel said in a 2005 speech.
Her mishap in the Engadin valley region of the Swiss Alps led Merkel to cancel a trip to Warsaw for talks with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Jan. 8. A Jan. 10-11 meeting of her Christian Democratic Union that Merkel was scheduled to address was postponed. Merkel doesn’t plan to attend the World Economic Forum this month in Davos, Switzerland.
While the SPD “now has the chance to show that they can govern,” the Social Democrats can’t gain points “in a conflict with Merkel,” Manfred Guellner, head of the Berlin-based Forsa polling firm, said by phone. “Merkel is hugely popular on the issues where she has shown credibility, such as the euro and energy.”
Merkel fell during a Christmas get-away that ended Dec. 30, Seibert said, declining to specify the date or exact location. “The doctor’s advice is to lie down a lot,” he said. The “incomplete fracture” in the left rear pelvic area is “no reason for regular medical bulletins” and Merkel will do most of her work “at home.”
The delay before the injury was made public highlights the private nature of a German leader’s vacation time. Whereas the U.S. president is accompanied by a pool of media wherever he goes, a German chancellor vacations without the public being told where she is and with no regular update of her movements.
Merkel, who is regularly reported to spend winter vacations in Swiss resorts such as St. Moritz and Pontresina, returned to Berlin on Dec. 30 to record the New Year’s address thinking she was only bruised. Doctors told her on Jan. 3 it was “a bit more than that,” Seibert said.
In her Dec. 31 public address, Merkel said that her New Year’s resolution was to get more fresh air, and wished Germans strength in 2014 to “shoulder the difficult things in life.”