Merkel clears last hurdle en route to German chancellorship

Securing a coalition deal, Angela Merkel nears becoming the country's first female chancellor.

merkel 88 (photo credit: )
merkel 88
(photo credit: )
Angela Merkel cleared the last major hurdle on her road to becoming Germany's first woman chancellor, as members of her conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats on Monday gave their coalition deal overwhelming, if unenthusiastic, approval. The ratification set the "grand coalition" of Germany's biggest parties on course to take power and battle sluggish growth in Europe's biggest economy, an 11 percent unemployment rate and a runaway budget deficit. Only a handful of dissenters opposed the hard-won agreement at separate conventions of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, its Bavaria-only Christian Social Union sister party and the Social Democrats of outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The approval cleared the way for parliament to elect Merkel, 51, for a four-year term as chancellor on Nov. 22; with the coalition commanding 448 seats in the 614-seat Bundestag, her election is now a near-certainty. But even as they offered their backing, delegates lined up to record reservations about the accord - underlining the tensions that will face the forced marriage of left and right that emerged from Germany's inconclusive Sept. 18 election. The deal, which features a raft of tax rises and subsidy cuts meant partly to plug a budget shortfall of $41 billion, already has attracted strong criticism from business, unions and German news media. "Politics is the art of the possible," Merkel said, quoting former West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, an iconic conservative leader, as she appealed for support in Berlin. After the vote, she urged her party to stay united as the new government tackles Germany's "unbelievably big problems." Conservatives have complained that they secured too little extra flexibility for Germany's rigidly regulated labor market and had to concede the Social Democrats' demand for an income tax increase for high earners. Social Democrats had trouble swallowing a decision to raise value-added tax paid by consumers at the cash register from 16 percent to 19 percent in 2007 - a move they opposed during the election campaign. "I am approving the result with a strong stomach ache," said Philipp Missfelder, the head of the conservatives' youth organization. Across the country in Karlsruhe, Social Democrat lawmaker Monika Griefahn told delegates that "we have a credibility problem" after agreeing to raise VAT. "I think we have a lot of explaining to do." Still, she promised to help ensure that Merkel has a "stable government." A fellow Social Democrat, Heiko Maas, spelled out perhaps the main reason to approve the accord. "The alternative would be to reject the deal, and that would mean new elections," he said. "If there were new elections, we would at best end up with the result we have now." The Social Democrats emerged a narrow second in the election, but both major parties scored poorly - leaving them well short of the parliamentary seats they needed to form traditional alliances with smaller parties. Party leaders played up their successes in weeks of coalition talks. Merkel said the deal is "the only responsible prospect" and insisted that it "clearly bears the signature of the (Christian Democratic) Union. Schroeder said it bears an "unmistakable Social Democratic signature." The deal "clearly lays out a model that is our model - the model of the European social state," said Matthias Platzeck, whom the Social Democrats are expected to elect as their new chairman Tuesday. Platzeck, 51, is the governor of the eastern state of Brandenburg. The Social Democrats also approved their eight-strong team of ministers for the Merkel Cabinet - among them Frank Walter Steinmeier, Schroeder's chief of staff, as foreign minister and Peer Steinbrueck as finance minister. They gave outgoing party chairman Franz Muentefering an overwhelming mandate to serve as Merkel's vice chancellor. "We have a big task in front of us: to make our country, Germany, fitter for the future," Platzeck said. "It is our task to give this country and its people new confidence."