Less than a week from polling day in the German state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Angela Merkel’s ruling centre-right coalition in Berlin looks in danger of losing its majority in the federal republic’s most populous Land.
All the latest opinion polls suggest that neither the chancellor’s “black-yellow” alliance of the Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democratic party, nor the alternative “red-green” combination of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, will emerge a clear victor. They face a virtual dead heat, with the radical leftwing Linke party holding the balance of power.
On the face of it, such an outcome would be a bad blow for Ms Merkel. Seven months ago, she won a clear national victory with her “black-yellow” platform. Yet voters have grown weary of the sense of drift in Berlin.
Indeed, it has become received wisdom in the rest of Europe that an important reason for her hesitation in signing up to a financial rescue package for Greece was because of fears that such an unpopular move would damage the electoral chances of her coalition.
Yet all is not quite as it seems, neither in Berlin, nor in North Rhine-Westphalia.
For a start, the Greek bail-out has barely been an issue in the campaign. The focus has been on jobs, education, and the bankruptcy of local government.
German voters are unhappy about loans to Greece, but they are unlikely to switch their votes from centre-right to centre-left on that account: both the SPD and Greens have criticised Ms Merkel for not moving more swiftly to help Athens.
Most doubts have been expressed within the ranks of the chancellor’s coalition. In rejecting any bail-out for many weeks, Ms Merkel was reflecting the political conviction of her own party and its allies.
More important in driving Ms Merkel’s attitude towards Greece has been the conviction that stability of the euro matters at all costs, and fear of what the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe – the highest court in the country – might say about any suggestion of a bail-out.
Senior officials insist the state election was never an issue. They say that far from hesitating over the rescue package, Ms Merkel was consistent from the start in saying it could only be justified if the stability of the eurozone as a whole was endangered; and if the rescue was a “last resort” for Greece.
Only if the first were true would the Karlsruhe court be persuaded it was legal, they say. Only if the second applied would Athens be persuaded to undertake the sort of sweeping budget cuts and economic reforms needed to revive the Greek economy.
The argument in Berlin is that reforms to increase the competitiveness of the Greek economy are more important than austerity measures. German taxpayers are not persuaded of either.
Ms Merkel believes she has won a more credible deal than would have been possible in February. But she cannot be sure the constitutional court will give the green light. The package is almost certain to be challenged by the same professors who have repeatedly questioned the grounds on which Germany gave up the D-Mark for the euro.
If there is a challenge, the court must decide if it would be more damaging to let the loan go ahead while it considers the case, or prevent the money being transferred with an emergency injunction. The German government is confident that with the backing of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and both houses of the German parliament, it will have done enough to head off any injunction.
The Bundestag and Bundesrat will consider the Greek loan under an emergency procedure this week. Ms Merkel will probably sign off on Friday night or Saturday, only a matter of hours before NRW goes to the polls.
It will only make a difference there if traditional CDU or FDP voters refuse to vote at all. Turnout is critical, and there is anger at the idea that Greece will get billions of euros, while local councils have not got enough money to keep their swimming pools open. But Ms Merkel’s popularity still seems to be remarkably stable. More likely, the Greek deal will simply reinforce German unhappiness about having given up the D-Mark for the euro at all.