Europe

There May Be No Alternative to Merkel, After All

The chancellor's party just won another important regional election.

Unbeatable.

Photographer: Dan Kitwood

Though roller-coaster elections have recently become the norm in established democracies (witness France's whirlwind campaign that ended last night), Germany appears determined to be an exception. As her party clinched yet another key regional election, Chancellor Angela Merkel is close to establishing her dominance in the September general election well ahead of time. 

Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz created a hint of an intrigue in January when he decided to run against Merkel as the top candidate of SPD, the Social Democratic Party that is now the junior coalition partner of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). It seemed briefly that someone of his caliber, conviction and campaigning skill could present a credible alternative; the SPD even topped the CDU in some polls, prompting editorials wondering if Germans were tired of Merkel and the chancellor herself was tired of campaigning -- this is, after all, her fourth run as her party's lead candidate. Thanks to the "Schulz effect," the SPD elected him its leader with an unprecedented 100 percent of the vote, bestowing on him the nickname "100 percent Schulz."

When it came to winning actual elections, though, the CDU has proved a tougher rival than Social Democrats expected. First, it won convincingly in Saarland in March after scaring voters with the possibility of an SPD alliance with more radical leftist forces. And on Sunday, it triumphed in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the SPD had ruled in coalition with the Greens and a party representing the state's Danish minority. Merkel's party improved on its 2012 result, while the Social Democrats performed worse -- and lost the state after 12 years as the ruling party. The CDU will govern the state now, likely with the liberal Free Democratic Party and the Greens, kicking the SPD out.

It's a tribute to Merkel's political skill that it's not quite clear to outside observers how she gets these victories. She appears to practice some kind of highly effective political zen.

Both in Saarland and in Schleswig-Holstein, polls showed the main parties running neck and neck just weeks before voting day. Then the SPD made a tiny misstep that didn't appear life-threatening. In Saarland, its leader showed perhaps too much enthusiasm for kicking the CDU out of government, even if it meant a riskier coalition. In Schleswig-Holstein, the state's Social Democrat prime minister Torsten Albig gave an interview to celebrity magazine Bunte, going into some details about the breakup of his marriage. It was widely seen as the wrong venue for a politician to vent on personal matters, and Albig's description of his ex-wife as someone too caught up in mothering and housekeeping rubbed women voters the wrong way. It also irritated Albig's coalition partners. The SPD can blame the state prime minister for being too complacent and tone-deaf to stave off defeat. But then, the CDU could have stumbled too but didn't, playing calmly through the endgame for the second time in a row.

"I am hellishly annoyed," Schulz said of the defeat. "It gets under the skin." That's nothing, however, to what he will feel a week from now if the SPD doesn't come first in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. The Social Democrats crushed the CDU 39 to 26 percent in the 2012 election, and they run the state in a comfortable coalition with the Greens. Until recently, they enjoyed hefty poll leads. The SPD state prime minister, Hannelore Kraft, is one of the party's federal leaders and a popular politician on a federal level; she is on her second term, and she has far more political weight and cachet with voters than her CDU rival, Armin Laschet -- but lately, he's been gaining and she's been losing poll support. Again, the CDU has snuck up on the SPD, and the election will be closer than the 2012 one. Merkel's party even stands a reasonable chance of winning.

The quiet CDU resurgence despite the party's lack of flashy campaigning tactics means the Christian Democrats have something going for them that's hard to overcome even if one doesn't make mistakes. That something is the quiet attraction of Merkel. She has sat out the "Schulz effect," and the CDU now has a clear lead in the national election race. While in February and March, many observers wrote her off as a spent force, no one doubts her competence and ability to keep the German economy growing in adverse circumstances. There has to be a strong reason for German voters to trade her for somebody else. Schulz hasn't hit on such a reason. As for the smaller parties, there's less and less of a chance of a strong showing by anti-immigrant or far-left forces. Germans see how insecure other European nations feel, and they lean toward the stability of Merkel's orderly, subdued confidence.

In the last televised debate before losing the French presidential election, nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen quipped that France would be ruled by a woman in any case -- either by her or by Merkel. The German chancellor's presence is clearly felt even in those elections in which she is not running, both inside and outside Germany. That is not something German voters are likely to squander. It has been during Merkel's long tenure that Germany has benefited greatly from being part of the European Union and the euro zone, and giving up leadership in such useful organizations just to shake things up a little is not the German way.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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