Merkel Failure to Turn Popularity Into Victory Puts CDU at Risk

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s re-election bid suffered a setback yesterday as voters ousted her Christian Democrats in Lower Saxony in their third straight regional defeat.

Failing to leverage surging popularity into victories in state elections means Merkel’s ambition for a third term may founder at the national level. Voters in Lower Saxony yesterday gave a one-seat majority to a Social Democratic-led bloc even after a jump in support for her Free Democrat partners and the first-place finish of CDU Premier David McAllister.

“The psychological effect is pretty strong,” Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s center in Brussels, said today. “Lower Saxony shows that you can be popular like McAllister was and still lose elections. So the question is: could this happen to Merkel?”

Merkel’s top marks among German voters for her handling of the debt crisis haven’t prevented the CDU from losing control in three German states in the last year. While polls still show she’s favored to lead a third government, her re-election chances could be complicated by Germany’s electoral calculus, including a weakened FDP and the strength of the SPD’s Green party coalition partner.

Merkel won a first term in 2005, when she formed a so-called Grand Coalition with the SPD. She won in 2009 with the pro-business FDP, whom she calls her preferred partner. This year’s vote will probably be held in late September.

CDU Defeats

The CDU was ejected from government last year in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and in the northern region of Schleswig-Holstein. In both cases, the CDU-FDP coalition lost ground to SPD-Green.

In Lower Saxony, McAllister’s CDU won 36 percent of the vote, even after polling at around 40 percent in pre-election polls. A popular campaign urged CDU voters to cast ballots for the FDP in a bid prevent the smaller party from missing the 5 percent threshold for entering the state assembly. That gave the coalition partner an unexpected 9.9 percent of the vote.

“The FDP is back on track to success” for the national campaign, Vice Chancellor and FDP leader Philipp Roesler said today.

Still, the combined amount fell short of the SPD-Green coalition even after early results pointed to a CDU-FDP win. SPD candidate Stephan Weil, the mayor of state capital Hanover, said he’ll begin work on setting up an SPD-Greens government.

“Especially after such a back-and-forth, such a loss hurts all the more,” Merkel told reporters today in Berlin. Still, she assured that the CDU “can still win elections.”

FDP Collapse

At the national level, the CDU’s strength contrasts with a collapse in support for the FDP. Most surveys show the smaller party winning less than 5 percent of the vote, a result that would exclude it from the lower house of parliament, or Bundestag.

An Emnid poll yesterday had the CDU at 43 percent and the FDP at 4 percent. The SPD polled at 25 percent, while the Greens garnered 13 percent, the poll showed. Should both factions fall short of a majority, Merkel may be forced to revive the “grand coalition” with the SPD that she oversaw from 2005 to 2009.

As Merkel seeks a third term as chancellor, the outcome of this fall “is still open,” Carsten Brzeski, a senior economist at ING Group in Brussels said on Twitter Inc.

One missing ingredient in Lower Saxony was the absence of the Left Party, which can help Merkel at the national level by drawing support from the SPD and Greens.

Merkel, Communists

“It’s a paradox that Merkel has to hope the communists win so she can be re-elected,” Ulrich Deupmann, a partner at management adviser Brunswick Group Inc. in Berlin, said in a telephone interview. The Left Party is the successor to former East Germany’s ruling communist party.

The FDP’s tailspin created speculation Roesler would step down as party leader. Instead, he’ll stay on while Rainer Bruederle, the head of the party’s parliamentary caucus, leads the election campaign, both men said today at a joint press conference in Berlin.

The upset in Lower Saxony also creates a dilemma for Merkel by giving the SPD and Greens a majority in Germany’s upper house of parliament, or Bundesrat. The opposition could use that position to initiate legislation challenging Merkel.

Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s general secretary, told reporters today her party will use its new Bundesrat majority against the Merkel government.

“Merkel is a queen without a country,” Nahles said.

The Lower Saxony result could bolster Merkel’s SPD challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, who needs to exploit the FDP’s weakness if he is to have any hope of deposing Merkel as chancellor.

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