German Chancellor Angela Merkel began trying to persuade her center-left rivals to keep her in power yesterday after her conservatives notched up their best election result in more than two decades, but fell short of an absolute majority.
Even the chancellor’s political foes acknowledged she was the big winner of the first German vote since the euro crisis began in 2010, which thrust the pastor’s daughter into the role of Europe’s dominant leader.
Despite leading her conservatives to their best result since 1990, with 41.5 percent of votes putting them five seats short of the first absolute majority in parliament in over half a century, 59-year-old Merkel had little time to celebrate.
“We are, of course, open for talks and I have already had initial contact with the SPD [Social Democratic Party] chairman, who said the SPD must first hold a meeting of its leaders on Friday,” Merkel told a news conference, adding that she did not rule out talks with other potential coalition partners.
Her SPD arch-rivals were plainly preparing to play hardball in any talks on repeating the “grand coalition” led by Merkel from 2005 to 2009, which worked well for Merkel in her first term, but cost the SPD millions of leftist votes.
“It will be an extremely long road,” said Ralf Stegner, head of the left wing of the SPD, which has major reservations about becoming junior partners again to Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and her the Christian Social Union (CSU) allies in Bavaria.
The SPD may have finished a poor second with their second-worst post-war result, but they know Merkel has to come knocking after her current center-right coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), failed to get back into parliament.
In German politics, where only one post-war chancellor has won an absolute majority — conservative patriarch Konrad Adenauer, in 1957 — complex coalition-building is par for the course and few politicians build consensus better than Merkel.
Polls show a majority of German voters would like another “grand coalition,” as do many of Germany’s partners in the eurozone, who expect the SPD to soften Merkel’s austerity-focused approach to struggling eurozone states like Greece.
The euro inched up and German government bond futures rose early yesterday as investors anticipated continuity in Berlin’s cautious approach to the crisis.
However, continuity may come at a high price for Merkel, in terms of Cabinet posts and policies.
In the campaign, the SPD argued for a legal minimum wage and higher taxes on the rich. It may demand the finance ministry, pushing out respected 71-year-old incumbent Wolfgang Schaeuble, or insist on key posts like the foreign or labor ministries.
After an election that gave a slim numerical majority to the leftist opposition, the SPD and Greens may even feel pressure to review a historical taboo against allying with the Left Party, heirs to the communists who built the Berlin Wall and still inspire distrust beyond their steady 8.5 percent of votes.
If Merkel and SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel fail to agree on a coalition, she could switch her focus to the Greens.
Many progressive CDU supporters favor a so-called “Black-Green” (black is the CDU’s official color) alliance and think Katrin Goering-Eckardt, a 47-year-old Greens leader from east Germany who is close to the Lutheran church, is a snug fit.
However, the CDU’s conservative wing, embodied by tough-talking parliamentary leader Volker Kauder, dislike the pacifist and ecologist party which campaigned for tax hikes on the wealthy.
The Greens, disappointed with their 8.4 percent result, may be wary of forming an alliance with a chancellor who bestows the kiss of death on her coalition allies.
For now, Merkel is one of few European leaders to survive the debt crisis, which has seen 19 of her peers lose their jobs.