March 15, 2012 11:43 pm

State poll could seal Merkel’s political fate

The one thing Angela Merkel did not need in the middle of the eurozone crisis was another election in Germany. The German chancellor was hoping for a quiet year on the home front, so that she could devote maximum attention to stabilising Europe’s common currency.

With the fall on Wednesday of the state government in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous of Germany’s 16 federal states, Ms Merkel faces not just any election, but a big provincial vote that will be seen as a dry run for next year’s national poll.

Some commentators are already predicting that her own political fate will depend on it. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper suggested on Thursday that if her centre-right Christian Democratic Union loses to a centre-left alliance of Social Democrats and Greens, she will be a “lame duck chancellor” for the rest of her term in office at home and in the wider European Union.

Whatever happens, the poll is likely to be a severe distraction to the chancellor until polling day, expected on May 13, and one that may limit her room for manoeuvre on the eurozone front.

Ms Merkel, who still enjoys great personal popularity, faces potential humiliation in the surprise election in NRW, as the state is known, where the combination of centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and environmentalist Greens has a clear lead.

The irony is that it is an election no one really wanted, and no one really expected – least of all Ms Merkel. It is her junior coalition partner in Berlin, the liberal Free Democratic party, that has caused the upset.

The liberals, whose popularity has slumped to 2 or 3 per cent in opinion polls and who stand to lose all their seats in the NRW assembly, were expected to abstain in a vote on the state budget. But instead, all the opposition parties in Düsseldorf, the state’s capital, rejected the budget on Wednesday, forcing the “red-green” minority government of SPD and Greens to call their bluff – and new elections.

With a population of 18m, NRW is not merely the most important of Germany’s 16 federal states, it is also the one that most closely resembles the national electorate. The CDU is level-pegging with the SPD, both on about 35 per cent; the Greens have surged to 17 per cent, according to a February Infratest poll.

If the poll were held today, the SPD and Greens would be able to form a majority government, with neither the FDP nor the far-left Linke party winning any seats. The one unknown is whether the newly-formed Pirates, a libertarian party campaigning for internet freedom, will get more than 5 per cent and thus seats in the assembly.

The only hope for Ms Merkel lies with Norbert Röttgen, her ambitious and articulate environment minister, who is CDU leader in NRW and the man who will challenge Hannelore Kraft, SPD state premier, to form the next government. If he can galvanise his party and come a clear first in the state, he could choose his partner in the next government from either the SPD or Greens.

Whatever the outcome of the poll – SPD and Greens, CDU and Greens, or CDU and SPD – the NRW coalition will be seen as an indicator for the 2013 result.

Ms Merkel’s problem is that although she is popular, and her party is still the largest in the country, the collapse of the FDP means she has no natural ally. The SPD and Greens, especially in NRW, have made it clear they prefer to govern together.

The chancellor is already facing a public embarrassment on Sunday, when Joachim Gauck, a former East German Protestant pastor, is set to be elected federal president. He is not the candidate Ms Merkel wanted to replace Christian Wulff, her Christian Democrat ally who was forced to resign last month because of investigations into political favours granted when he was state premier in Lower Saxony. But Ms Merkel has been forced by the FDP to accept the man proposed by the opposition, who is by far the most popular choice.

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