BERLIN - German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned to the international stage on Friday with a path to her fourth term opening up and her enemies in retreat.
A week that began with the collapse of coalition talks, intrigue and finger-pointing ended with her telling her European Union partners that Germany is back to business as usual.
The Social Democrats, her government partner during two of her three terms, backed off from their not-this-time attitude to another coalition deal, and polls suggest Merkel’s popularity among party supporters is intact.
It may be another defining moment for the 63-year-old chancellor, who has defied expectations of her demise before, even as strategic defeats and enemies pile up after 12 years in office. The latest enemy to be left licking its wounds is the Free Democratic Party, a one-time ally of her Christian Democratic Union that walked out of coalition talks in a blaze of anger earlier in the week.
“The breakdown definitely left Merkel damaged, but I don’t believe it’s the beginning of the end of the Merkel era,” Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Free University in Berlin, said in an interview. “There’s nobody in the CDU right now who would dare to challenge her.”
The FDP exposed the soft underside to Merkel’s power base with its decision to abandon talks with her Christian Democratic-led bloc and the Greens. Two senior CDU officials said they felt FDP leader Christian Lindner was trying to stir up a party revolt against Merkel after her group’s vote slumped by almost 9 percentage points in September’s vote. The allegation was echoed publicly by Green negotiator Juergen Trittin.
The FDP denied trying to bring down Merkel, saying the talks foundered over policy disagreements. “That’s truly silly,” FDP negotiator Alexander von Lambsdorff told the General-Anzeiger newspaper, saying the party had no intention of stoking a “palace revolt.”
One CDU official said Merkel’s backers are concerned that 38-year-old Lindner could grow in stature to become Germany’s version of Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old Austrian chancellor-elect who won his country’s election in October on an anti-immigration platform.
But the episode appeared to harm the FDP more than Merkel. Her approval rating after the coalition fiasco slipped 3 percentage points to 54 percent, while Lindner’s tumbled 13 points to 32 percent, according to an Infratest Dimap poll taken Monday, a day after the talks collapsed.
Merkel meanwhile headed to Brussels Friday to renew her contacts with senior EU officials and the Ukrainian leadership, who she helped during the 2014 tensions with Russia.
“I was able to tell them that we, as the acting German government, will fully fulfill our European obligations and that we will actively engage,” Merkel said in a statement to reporters, adding that her comments had been well received.
Yet the struggle to form a government may still embolden critics within Merkel’s party such as Deputy Finance Minister Jens Spahn, 37, who took part in the failed coalition talks. Two weeks after the election, Spahn blamed other party leaders for bungling its response to Germany’s refugee influx, which propelled the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party into parliament in September.
“Nobody really felt like addressing this topic,” he said to thunderous applause at a convention of the CDU’s youth wing in Dresden.
“The fact is that Merkel did not handle the talks very well,” Niedermayer said. “Everybody made mistakes.”
She is headed for safer territory now though as the Social Democrats, her junior partner during two of her three previous terms, opened the door to a governing coalition for Europe’s biggest economy. That lessens the risk of an unprecedented repeat election.
Niels Annen of the Social Democrats, in an interview with the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper, called for quick action to form a new German government given a range of crises around the world, and said a “grand coalition” was an option that could not be excluded.
Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz on Friday agreed to hold talks with Merkel about reviving their outgoing coalition government but said no decisions had been made and party members would have the final say on any deal.
But he suggested that governing could help the Social Democrats achieve their political aims and told the party’s youth wing — which rejected another grand coalition at a party conference — that he expected their loyalty and “constructive cooperation.”
Annen said the Social Democrats need to hear from “the failed chancellor” about how she envisioned the future government before agreeing to another four-year tie-up with conservatives.
Even if Merkel has to face voters again, she still has the backing of her base. Eighty-five percent of CDU supporters say they would want Merkel to run again if the vote were to take place, according to a Forsa poll conducted Monday.
“As long as Merkel remains so popular with voters, people like Lindner and Spahn won’t succeed,” Forsa head Manfred Guellner said in an interview.