German Chancellor Angela Merkel led her conservative coalition to a rousing victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The results were a compelling affirmation of the policies and the popularity of the wily politician who Germans have come to call “Mutti” (mummy).
It is supremely ironic, then, that the ballot may actually push Germany a little to the left as Ms. Merkel struggles to cobble together a new coalition government.
The chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), allied with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has governed Germany since 2005. She took over as head of the party in 2000. Sunday was the third time she has tested her leadership at the ballot box.
In the vote, the CDU/CSU won 41.5 percent, their strongest showing since 1990. Under German electoral rules, that plurality almost produced a parliamentary majority. The alliance claimed 311 seats, an additional 72 seats over the previous parliament, leaving it just five seats short of an absolute majority.
In postwar Germany so far, Iron Chancellor Konrad Adenauer has the distinction of having achieved the only absolute majority, which was in 1957.
The leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), collected just 25.7 percent of votes, its second-worst postwar result. Still, it managed to increase its representation by 42 seats, giving it 192 representatives in the 630-seat Bundestag. The remainder of seats are filled by The Left Party, the remnants of the communist left, with 64 seats, and the Greens, with 63 seats.
In fact, left-leaning parties have a majority in the new Parliament, but there is no chance that they would be given a mandate to govern, given the overwhelming support for the CDU/CSU and Ms. Merkel. In theory, Ms. Merkel could govern with a minority, but there is no history of that in German politics.
Instead, Ms. Merkel is likely to reach out to either the SPD or the Greens to form a government. The most likely option is a “Grand Coalition” with the SPD. Such alliances are frequent in state governments and Ms. Merkel forged a similar coalition in her first government in 2005-2009.
The experience with the coalition government and the interregnum and have left a bitter taste in the mouths of SPD members. Ms. Merkel has proven to be an extremely shrewd politician. Her high popularity ratings have come at the expense of her partners in government.
In that first government, the SPD had half the Cabinet slots, including key positions such as finance, labor and foreign affairs. Nevertheless, the party got little credit for success, and longtime supporters were alienated by the coalition. In the 2009 ballot, the SPD was hammered, with support dropping 11 percentage points to its worst postwar result.
A similar fate befell Ms. Merkel’s most recent allies, the Free Democratic Party, a conservative party that has long partnered with the CDU and is much more ideologically aligned.
As a condition for joining the government, the FDP had sought major tax cuts, pledges that were largely ignored. After polling a record high 15 percent of the vote in 2009, last weekend they fell below the 5 percent threshold needed to claim seats in Parliament, the first such failure by the FDP since World War II.
In 2005, it took two months for Ms. Merkel to cobble together a government. She has already begun discussions with the SPD, and the German penchant for stability means that no party will want to be seen as obstructing the formation of a new government.
Opinion polls show a majority of Germans favor a Grand Coalition. Still, bargaining will be tough — not only because of Ms. Merkel’s record with her partners but also because her possible allies are on the other end of the political spectrum.
The result is likely to be a moderation of the sharper edges of the chancellor’s current agenda. The SPD will continue to demand a mandatory national minimum wage and higher taxes on the rich.
During the campaign, Ms. Merkel rejected both as damaging to the economy. She may be forced to give on one if not both issues. There will certainly be no radical shifts that imperil the German economy. Caution has been Ms. Merkel’s watchword; it will continue to be so.
Foreign policy will not change. All Germans support Ms. Merkel’s demand for austerity and responsibility from its eurozone partners. It is telling that the Euro-skeptic party, Alternative for Germany, did not crack the 5 percent threshold either.
A Grand Coalition will likely back policies that boost growth, but the shifts will be marginal. The German reluctance to join high-profile military missions overseas will be reinforced.
Ms. Merkel is now on track to be the longest-serving female leader in modern European history, surpassing Britain’s own Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.
Ms. Merkel has survived an economic crisis that cost 19 other European leaders their jobs.
It is a remarkable performance, yet one that she has handled with calm and assurance. That steady hand is what Germans expect from their leader and why they gave the Ms. Merkel and the CDU/CSU a third term last weekend.