German Chancellor Angela Merkel was under fire from the left and even one of her own coalition partners Friday for promising expensive tax breaks to voters just a few months ahead of parliamentary elections in September. Leaving aside the question of the legitimacy of her Christian Democratic Party (CDU)’s economic plans, it’s worth pausing to take note that Merkel is deemed vulnerable enough politically that she would even feel the need to boost her standing with these kinds of flashy fiscal perks. As Juergen Trittin, leader of the opposition Greens, put it, Merkel is providing costly “election gifts,” which is only possible because the German economy is so much stronger than its neighbors’ and austerity has barely reared its head on that side of the Rhine. That the left is outraged at a conservative, business-friendly premier increasing childcare benefits, providing tax cuts to people with children, and changing pension rules speaks, of course, to their frustration that Merkel has managed to soften the blow of her tough economic policy’s impact within the German border. She is running a cushy social democracy while her neighbors’ welfare states are on the chopping block.
That being said, it’s hard to envision that cries from the German Left that the incumbent is doling out popular benefits will sink her campaign. After all, it was the American conservative leader and Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney who complained he lost the U.S. presidential election last November because incumbent Barack Obama gave the voters “gifts” — which is to say, tangible goods like affordable healthcare. If Americans, who have a rather ambivalent relationship with the idea of state-provided benefits, were unmoved by such rhetoric, is it really plausible that Germans will be? A more likely possibility than Merkel’s election-year antics getting her into real trouble is that the new Alternative for Germany (AD) euroskeptic party cracks the five percent barrier and gains a foothold in parliament. Ironically, the AD — comprised so far of about 12,000 people — thinks Merkel has been far too generous, at least when it comes to E.U. neighbor nations, forgiving their fiscal shortcomings and doling out aid willy-nilly. But AD’s leader, the Hamburg economist Bernd Lucke, is indicating he is not inextricably opposed to the idea of forming a coalition with Merkel should her center-right party fail to capture a working majority, as is likely. Such an arrangement might require that she jettison the classical liberal Free Democrats currently in her government, but considering their willingness to lampoon her election-year policies, perhaps that would suit Merkel just fine.
The question is whether Merkel’s triangulation against the left — depriving it of some of its major campaign pledges by enacting them herself — alienates enough German conservatives so as to boost the AD into contention. If so, she may find herself joining hands with a party that, at its inception anyway, seemed to be defined by a rejection of her legacy. Fortunately for Merkel, she can always tweak that, too.