Merkel facing trouble despite top poll rating

Posted in Europe | 19-Jan-06 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
BERLIN Chancellor Angela Merkel's surprising success in foreign policy, underscored by her trips to Washington and Moscow this past week, has helped propel her for the first time to the top of a leading German opinion poll. But her skill both in diplomacy and in straddling the left-right divide at home is threatening to strain her very young coalition government, according to officials and analysts from both parties.

Merkel's apparent ease in raising controversial issues in talks last Friday with President George W. Bush and on Monday with President Vladimir Putin of Russia raised her profile so high that she now tops the Politbarometer, an influential political poll run by ZDF, the state-owned television network. Her successes follow a skillful performance in December at the EU summit meeting, where Merkel helped broker a difficult budget deal.

ZDF also showed Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats rapidly rising in the polls, capturing 43 percent of the vote, compared with the Social Democrats, who remain stuck at 31 percent.

Even though the Social Democrats' new leader, Matthias Platzeck, finished second in the Politbarometer for individual politicians, Merkel's success and style have so alarmed the Social Democrats that some analysts see the party already trying to counter the rise of Merkel, even if that means breaking cabinet decisions recently made together.

"The Social Democrats are in a deep crisis," said Manfred Güllner, director of the Forsa Institute and an expert on the party.

"The Social Democrats never wanted Merkel as chancellor, but now they have her," Güllner said. Referring to a coalition agreement to raise the value-added tax next year, he added: "They never wanted the valued-added tax but now they have had to swallow it. Instead of developing a long-term strategy, they are trying to react to Merkel, who, because she is chancellor, has enormous power."

Among Germany's conservatives, Merkel continues to have serious rivals. But some politicians and analysts in the conservative camp credit the chancellor's new popularity to her success in melding agendas and language from left and right.

Merkel has managed to bridge her belief in individual freedom with the need for security and social justice, even if it means using language more often associated with Social Democrats, said Michael Borchard, an expert on political parties at the conservative Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

"She has moved quickly to strengthen her position inside the party and among the public," he added.

Philipp Missfelder, leader of the Christian Democrats' youth movement, who was elected to the Bundestag in September, said Merkel was rattling the Social Democrats because of her foreign policy success but also her domestic agenda.

"As chancellor, Merkel is giving the party a much higher and sharper profile," said Missfelder, who criticized the party's campaign last fall for what he said was a failure to present clear policies. "This is clearly affecting the Social Democrats, because at the moment they do not have a very strong leadership."

He added that Merkel did not want a conflict with the Social Democrats. "She wants this coalition to work," he said.

A grand coalition of the left and right has existed only once before in the history of post-World War II Germany, from 1966 to 1969, and presents both sides with the difficulty of being forced to work and govern together while trying to retain distinct profiles with voters.

Both parties face their first big political test in March during three important regional elections in the states of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt.

If the Christian Democrats did far better than the Social Democrats in those elections, Güllner said, it would exacerbate tensions inside the grand coalition

"since the Social Democrats could argue they are part of a coalition that benefits Merkel's conservatives and not them."

With the elections in mind, Platzeck told a meeting of top Social Democrats in Mainz on Sunday that they had to sharpen their profile and regain the initiative. Niels Annen, a former youth leader of the Social Democrats who was elected to the Bundestag in September, said it was normal that the party strike a balance between supporting the grand coalition and defending its principles.

"We have to identify our own policies and a strategy," Annen said.

To the dismay of government ministers, the Social Democrats have begun to tear up an agreement over the costs of child care that the cabinet had made during a special policy session earlier this month.

The cabinet had agreed that child care costs of more than E1,000, or $1,200, should be tax-deductible. But this week in a bid to outdo the conservatives in generosity to families, an executive meeting of the Social Democrats scrapped the deal and said all child care costs should be tax-deductible. Annen, for instance, said the agreement had favored more well-off households.

Unlike previous chancellors, who have usually spent the first year or so tackling domestic issues, Merkel wasted no time in setting her foreign policy agenda. In the space of just a few weeks, the Chancellery, not the Foreign Ministry, laid out goals in trans-Atlantic relations, European policy and relations with Russia, something Gerhard Schröder focused on only in 2002, at the end of his first term in office.

Andreas Maurer, an expert on German foreign policy at the International Institute for Security Policy in Berlin, said Merkel had been surprisingly quick to step into the foreign policy arena.

"She has a very good group of experts around her," Maurer said.

The approach of Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was Schröder's chief of staff, has been systematic and technocratic, he added.

"Merkel does what she says and says what she does," Maurer said. "She is calm about it."

But Merkel has also managed to make an early comeback on domestic policy issues. As party leader and candidate for chancellor, she had been blamed by her fellow Christian Democrats for their poor performance in the federal elections in September because she neglected issues of social security in her campaign.

Merkel reacted to that by calling for a new party program to focus on the issue of social justice, effectively silencing her critics. This new approach has thrown the Social Democrats, who have always defined themselves as the party that champions social justice, off guard.