Thursday, March 15, 2012

Germany: Election cycle starts earlier than expected

With the surprise fall of the minority government in Germany’s most populous state, the election cycle starts earlier than expected. This time around, however, the impact on the debt crisis should be very limited.

Normally, there are around four state elections per year in Germany, making election campaign an important factor in actual policymaking. This year, however, was supposed to be different, with only one planned election in May. This has definitely changed with this week’s fall of North Rhine Westphalia’s minority government due to some protocoloic negligence. Instead of one, there will now be three state elections in May as, already a couple of weeks ago, the fall of the government of the state Saarland also required new elections. The election cycle has started again.

Most focus will probably be on the elections in North Rhine Westphalia, the state where most Germans live. Could there be any impact from the elections on the German stance in the Eurozone debt crisis? Remember that back in 2010, Chancellor Merkel was very hesitant to agree to the first Greek bailout as she feared losing the elections in North Rhine Westphalia. As she had lost the elections anyway, things look differently now. Chancellor Merkel seems to be in a much better starting position as she has almost nothing to lose. Given the fact that the current minority government of North Rhine Westphalia was formed by the two biggest federal opposition parties already, the Green Party and the Social-democrats, even an absolute majority for these two would not change the current majority situations in national parliaments, neither in the upper nor in the lower house. Probably only a landslide defeat for Chancellor Merkel’s Christian-democrats could have an impact on Merkel’s position within her own party. Maybe to avoid such a scenario, Angela Merkel already stated that the work of the national government was totally independent from results of state elections.

The biggest unknown in the current gambling in German politics is Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the liberal party. Since the party has failed to reach the election threshold in almost every state election since the impressive performance at the 2009 national elections, it got caught in a kind of identity crisis and is now desperately trying to win back electorate support. Further defeats could lead to new unrest in the party, consequently posing a problem for Chancellor Merkel’s coalition. This, of course, would look like be bad news for Merkel but it would meet her anything but unprepared. Angela Merkel is still the most popular German politicians and her party is leading in the national opinion polls with a comfortable margin. In fact, Angela Merkel could even be suspected of having a Teflon layer as even the resignation of two German presidents and several high-profile politicians of her own party has not damaged her popularity. In a worst case scenario in which her own coalition gets paralysed or even falls, it currently looks as if Merkel would have the Social-democrats as fall-back option. Already now, or at the latest at next year’s federal elections. A revival of the so-called grand coalition of Christian and Social democrats would at least on the Eurozone debt crisis not bring any change as the Social-democrats have often supported Merkel’s current strategy. Looking ahead, it looks as if Angela Merkel’s best strategy going to next year’s federal elections will be to sustain her own high popularity and prevent an absolute majority for the green Party and the Social-democrats.

All in all, the elections in North-Rhine Westphalia should hardly have any direct impact on Merkel's euro crisis management. However, the indirect fallout of the elections and the election campaign will at least give us an unexpected early flavour of next year's federal elections and might even start shaping the contours of the next federal government.

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