After a tumultuous first month that saw the national press corps zero in on their many ideological disputes, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, her conservative allies, and the center-left Social Democrats seemed to right the ship on Thursday, agreeing to rein in energy subsidies and seek out common ground on pension reform.
Indeed, when they emerged from two days of ministerial meetings at a baroque castle north of Berlin, Merkel and her chief deputy, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, were singing each other’s praises, despite the virtual certainty that they will face off at the polls sometime in the near future.
The grand coalition is not the first bipartisan foray by Merkel nor the SPD, which is traditionally her Christian Democratic Union (CDU)’s greatest electoral rival. But after her libertarian allies in the Free Democratic Party (FPD) tanked in September’s vote, the chancellor had no choice but to cross the aisle to maintain control of the government. Merkel likely doesn’t mind, as the last grand coalition ended in a nice victory for the CDU and FPD, whereas SPD rank-and-file are disgruntled at giving political cover to the already-popular Merkel.
Thorny issues remain, of course, such as the eligibility of immigrants for welfare programs and possible exemptions from a proposed national minimum wage. Increasingly, however, the danger to Merkel’s government comes not from the left, but from her own sprawling conservative network of partnerships and regional alliances. The Bavarian Christian Social Union, a sister party to Merkel’s CDU, has been making a fuss over introducing a national motorway toll on cars, even though both other coalition partners — not to mention the general public — are loath to accept the idea. An Emnid Institute poll that came out earlierin January showed just 46 percent of the public approved of the new government, a testament to how difficult it can be to please a majority when taking disparate world-views into account on a daily basis. If that’s as bad as things get and this country pow-wow produces an extended honeymoon period, all will be forgotten. OThe real threat here is that of continued clashes over the distribution of national resources — and just who counts as a member of the German community — which could rupture not just this coalition, but the electoral foundation on which Merkel’s incredible run atop European politics has rested.