Success at home: How about foreign policy?

Success at home: How about foreign policy?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel led her conservative coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), to a stunning victory in last weekend’s federal elections. According to exit polls, the Union gained 41.5 percent of votes and won 311 seats in the Bundestag, though failed to attain an absolute majority in the 630-seat Parliament. At the end of her new term, Merkel will overtake Margaret Thatcher, U.K. prime minister from 1979 to 1990, as Europe’s longest serving female leader. Economic stability, low unemployment rates as well as Merkel’s personal effort in safeguarding Germany from the euro crisis have put her ahead in her country and among other European leaders.

Despite Merkel’s remarkable win, she still needs a coalition partner to form a government. As her current coalition partner, Free Democrat Party (FDP), lost its position in Parliament, only gaining 4.8 percent of votes and leaving it below the 5 percent threshold, she will most likely seek a so-called “grand coalition” with the Social Democrat Party (SPD), which took 26 percent of the vote and won 192 seats, as she did during her first term between 2005 and 2009. Although Peer Steinbrück, the leader of SPD and finance minister of the previous grand coalition, is reluctant to enter a coalition with CDU/CSU for its negative political effects – as evidenced in the failure of the FDP to enter the Bundestag – the political atmosphere is ripe for a change. Though another coalition alternative with the Greens, which won 63 seats with 8.4 percent of votes, is also possible, the gap between their policies is quite wide. Still, Merkel’s decision to turn off all German nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster may become the catalyst to realize such a coalition. No matter which coalition forms the next government, there won’t be drastic political shifts, as the election results show that the the German electorate is happy with the current policies. 

Many around the world closely followed the results of the federal elections. Germany’s powerful position within Europe and its essential role in preserving the euro justified such attention. As Europe’s largest economy, Germany has been able to maintain its stable position amid the worst economic crisis since the 1920s and to fend off instability in the eurozone with its support of countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. Both the EU and the eurozone are fragile at the moment and Merkel needs to concentrate on keeping them together while British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to renegotiate Britain’s position within the EU.

Expectations for the grand coalition is giving hope to many troubled EU members since the SPD, in contrast to Merkel, supports more economic stimulus and less rigid austerity measures, though expecting a fundamental change in Merkel’s grand strategy is not realistic. Especially with the unexpected challenge presented by the newly founded Alternative für Deutschland Party (AfD), which advocates the dismemberment of the eurozone and took 4.8 percent of the votes, the pressure inside the country against the bailout packages are growing. But Merkel is also acutely aware of the fact that a successful and stable German economy heavily relies on its exports to European markets, so they need to be propped up despite domestic criticisms.

Even though some EU members, as well as many others, expect Germany to take the lead in Europe in becoming more active in international politics, Merkel will resume her cautious foreign policy and reluctant stance in her third term. Her success mainly depends on policies at home and on the economic front. She would not wish to endanger that with a more active, yet risky, stance in international arena.