Is Angela Merkel’s coalition a first victim of Greece bailout?

The election results in North Rhine-Westphalia depends on federal and state issues. But the fact is the German coalition CDU/CSU and FDP lost their majority in the Bundesrat. Merkel has admitted her government suffered a “bitter defeat” in regional elections.

Questions:

1. Looking at the results of the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia it is some kind of signal for the government and what do you think the German voters are trying to say to the government?

2. Will Chancellor Angela Merkel and the others listen?

Answers:

Sebastian Bukow, Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Forschungsinformation und Qualitätsicherung

1. In fact, the election results depends on federal and state issues. On federal level there was a strong dissapointment with Jürgen Rüttgers, especially a lack of authenticity can be said to be a main problem of Rüttger’s. Furthermore ha had a lot of trouble with his own party in the last months, a lot of indiscretion disturbed his campaign. But as you asked, there is a national politcs and policy problem as well. The national government of Angela Merkel (CDU) and Guido Westerwelle (FDP) did not manage a stron, persuasive start. they managed to dissapoint a lot of voters, the main problem is that they failed in developing a convincing programm or working schedule. You could even say, CDU and FDP are a little bit “shy with strangers”, means: did not find together yet.

2. Well, in one point they will have to listen: They lost their majority in the Bundesrat, as you can say the second chamber on national level. That means all national decisions concerning federal issues as well cannot be decided by cdu/fdp own their own any longer, more proceedings and compromises will be necessary in future; SPD already said that they will stop main reform programs of CDU/FDP national governement. Furthermore we will see in next days what personell consequences these election will bring.

Christian Schweiger, Lecturer in Government, Department of Politics, Durham University

1. I think that the outcome of the election in North Rhine-Westphalia is based on of a mix between regional and national reasons. The CDU in NRW was embroiled in an expenses scandal recently, which led to the resignation of the party chairman and noticeably affected the personal poll rating of prime minister Jürgen Rüttgers. At the same time, the CDU/CSU-FDP government in Berlin have had a very bad start and had announced a number of unpopular measures, like a flat rate health tax for everyone and a general intention to lower taxes in spite of very difficult financial circumstances for the regions and communities. Particularly the Free Democrats led by foreign minister Guido Westerwelle have seen a sharp drop in their popularity as a result of Westerwelle’s call for the need to lower the already controversial Hartz IV unemployment benefits even further to push people into work. Voters in NRW who are traditionally left of centre seem to therefore have sent a clear signal to Berlin that they disagree with the neoliberal policy proposals of the current coalition, something the opposition parties SPD, Greens and Die Linke have called for.  At the same time, they seem to have lost faith in the political leadership and integrity of PM Rüttgers.

2. I am not sure if the government in Berlin will understand the message that has emerged from NRW. In my opinion Angela Merkel has very weak leadership skills which has become obvious during the current crisis of the eurozone, where she sent mixed messages to Germany’s partners in the EU. She has so far also been reluctant to confront her coalition partner FDP and to support calls within her own party to rule out tax cuts under the current difficult financial circumstances. She has in recent years governed on the basis of a substantial majority (during the grand coalition with the SPD between 2005-2010) and has been sailing on a wave of popularity. The new circumstances following the NRW election, where she has now lost the majority in the second chamber and will therefore have to find compromise with the opposition parties will be unprecedented for her and it remains to be seen how she will react to this. The FDP itself seems to have been shaken by yesterday’s result and Westerwelle publicly declared that he had understood the electorate’s messages. On the other hand his party’s general secretary yesterday denied that there was any need for the government to change course and blamed the result purely on regional circumstances.

Joanna McKay, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University

1.  It is highly likely that many voters wanted to express their opposition to Angela Merkel’s decision to support the bail out of Greece (having previously said that she wouldn’t support this). Also voters may have wanted to express their concerns about the impact of the federal government’s proposed tax cuts, in particular the impact on welfare payments and public services. Other voters may just be disappointed with how little the CDU-CSU/FDP government has achieved so far, partly due to disagreements between the parties. We should also remember though that North-Rhine Westphalia is not traditional CDU territory – the CDU’s result there last time was unusually good and was therefore unlikely to be repeated. Also, in elections at Land level, German voters don’t only cast their votes based on their view of the federal government – local factors influence them too.

2. Regarding your second question about whether or not Merkel and the federal government will listen  to the messages the voters in NRW have sent them, I think they will have to. They have lost their majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house, and won’t now be able to pass any controversial legislation without consulting the other parties. Also the 2005 Land election in NRW signaled the beginning of the end for Chancellor Gerhard Schröderand Chancellor Merkel will be aware of this. she would be foolish to ignore the views of the electorate in Germany’s most populous Land. Meanwhile Minister President Rüttgers was both an ally and a rival so it remains to be seen what effect his departure will have on her standing within her own party, assuming of course that he does leave office (since a grand coalition is still a possibility).

A. James McAdams, Professor of International Affairs, Director, Nanovic Institute for European Studies University of Notre Dame

My view is that this election is both very interesting and potentially deceiving.

It is interesting because it is an undeniable debacle for the CDU which has always looked at NRW as a natural haven.  It is also a serious defeat for the government in depriving it of its controlling position in the Bundesrat.  Moreover, it is a total disaster for the FDP, the CDU’s partner, whose aggressive tax-reduction strategy has been rejected by the electorate. The Free Democrats are the big losers, not just in votes but also in prestige..

However, the election is also a potentially deceiving indicator of future trends.  The SPD actually received a smaller share of the vote than in past years.  It may be able to form a governing coalition but only if it forms an ugly coalition that includes the Left party (ie. SPD, Greens, Left) or allies itself with either the FDP+Greens or the CDU.  Thus, any SPD “victory” would only be by default.  The best the SPD can hope for is that the Left party would not be in the state coalition but would agree to cooperate with it in not opposing legislation.

The modest winners are the Greens (whose electoral fortunes have been waning) and the Left (which happily benefits from being present in any government).

But overall, we aren’t yet seeing any sea change in German politics.  The SPD too would have agreed to participate in the Greek bailout.  It still doesn’t have any clear alternative to the Merkel coalition.  Indeed Merkel may now be in a slightly more advantageous position because she can pull back from the FDP’s provocative plan to reduce taxes (and hence reduce services in a state government already suffering from the world recession).

Rüdiger Wurzel, Reader,  Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Hull

1. The result in North Rhine-Westphalia is largely due to the fact that the  voters were very unhappy with the poor performance of the Centre-Right coalition government in Berlin. Some of the proposals put forward by in particular the Liberals (FDP) have been deeply unpopular amongst voters in Germany most of whom do not believe that significant tax cuts are affordable in the current difficult economic circumstances. Merkel has also made serious strategic mistakes by failing to act quickly and decisively to counter the economic crises in Greece which she has allowed to develop into a crisis of the euro.

2. Merkel will listen. She has no option but to listen because with the loss of its majority in North Rhine-Westphalia the Centre-Right coalition government has also lost its majority in the Bundesrat (Upper House). It will therefore now become much more difficult for the Centre-Right coalition government in Berlin to adopt major reforms. An ‘informal grand coalition’ between the CDU/CSU and the SPD in the Bundesrat will now be required to pass major reform laws which need the support of both the Bundestag (Lower House) and Bundesrat. Merkel is probably not entirely unhappy about this new situation which significantly reduces significantly the potential influence of the Liberals (FDP) within the Centre-Right coalition government. The Liberal’s party leader, Guido Westerwelle, is now under even more pressure to change his style and to modify his demands for radical welfare state reforms. During his first few months as German Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor he almost acted like he was the leader of an opposition party which is campaigning for radical policy changes.

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