On Tuesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected leader of the conservative CDU party, gathering a resounding 98% share of votes. German newspapers of all political leanings now consider a third mandate as chancellor distinctly within Ms Merkel’s reach. According to recent polls, two thirds of German voters view her government’s efforts to fight the euro zone crisis favourably.
That such stability and credit be accorded to a right-wing party that has been in power all through the current crisis – Ms Merkel herself has been head of the government since well before 2008 – contrasts starkly with the fate of many other ruling conservative parties across the EU. The latest general elections in France and Ireland saw the ousting of (increasingly divided) governing conservatives. In Italy, Mr Berlusconi’s government was replaced by a technocratic one led by apartisan economist Mario Monti. Meanwhile, the popularity rates of those still in power in Britain, Spain, Greece and Portugal are stagnating at historic lows. The map of governing parties throughout Europe does remain dominated by blue, but it is no longer possible to speak of a centre-right continent, as many commentators did in 2011.
The crisis has been taking its toll on the approval ratings of liberal conservative governments, and the CDU stands out in that regard.
Several reasons have been put forward to explain this near-unique status within the euro zone. First, Ms Merkel has succeeded in winning a broad, if reluctant, consensus in favour of her European policies from a majority of parties represented in the Bundestag. The latest Greek aid package was supported by 473 of the lower house’s 584 deputies present. In fact, domestic social policy issues may prove to be Ms Merkel’s weakest point, as exemplifies the wide-spread discontent over rejection of tax equality for gay couples in her party’s conference on Tuesday.
Yet critics of the coalition government have also emphasised how vague Ms Merkel has been on sacrifices that will need to be made to maintain all struggling members of the euro zone within the monetary union. Ms Merkel’s recent mention of a possible future writedown of Greek debt indicates that much of Germany’s aid to Greece may never be repaid, contrary to most previous statements from the Finance Ministry.
Such a move is considered likely, even desirable, by most analysts. In fact, some major newspapers now openly view it to be the lesser evil: the Spiegel published an article on Monday entitled “Denying Reality: Germany’s Ongoing Refusal to Forgive Greek Debt”. A few days earlier, the left-leaning Tageszeitung declared that “three years since the beginning of the crisis, Europe still hasn’t learned any lessons, even though it has long been clear what has to be done. A debt cut is necessary, and not just for Greece. Austerity has to be suspended wherever such measures are hurting the economy. And Southern Europe needs an economic stimulus program worthy of the name.”
The Handelsblatt, a business daily, notes that “the compromise will carry Merkel’s government just far enough to reach election day in the fall of 2013” but adds that “it remains unclear if it can carry Greece beyond that.” Very critical of the government’s current measures and rhetoric, it argues that, “since the very beginning of the Greek crisis, the chancellor and her finance minister have been forced to regularly retreat from positions held, and they have had to pay a high price for doing so. Their political and moral credibility are at stake.”
The conservative Welt, on the other hand, worries that the taxpayer’s contribution to the bailout “apparently doesn’t bother anyone” – an issue already addressed in a news post on this blog.
Over the past few days these dissonant voices have, however, lingered on the sidelines, the re-election of Ms Merkel overwhelmingly dominating media coverage during the first part of the week.
The current support for Ms Merkel’s European policies may owe much to the fact many still consider that a writedown of the Greek debt can be avoided, a view which the CDU has forcefully and repeatedly defended. Once the heat of Tuesday’s party conference recedes, and media attention turns away from the CDU’s show of strength and unity, Ms Merkel will face difficult questions on her long-term vision for dealing with the debt of ailing European economies, and the implication of her plans on the taxpayer’s bill.
Her re-election in the general election of 2013 will largely depend on her ability to form a coherent narrative of her government’s European policy. Perceptions of her handling of the crisis will in any case largely determine the outcome of the bruising campaign to come.