Merkel's jet-setting: what cost?

Two years into office, the German leader is popular but her coalition is in a standoff.

As tensions have steadily mounted in her delicate power-sharing government, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has maintained a rigorous travel schedule that has taken her to nine countries since August – jetting off to Liberia one week, Greenland another.

Beginning her third year in office this week, Mrs. Merkel enjoys a 70 percent approval rating largely because Germans believe she has elevated the country's clout on the world stage – presiding over international summits, meeting with heads of state on their own turf, and playing tough on key issues such as climate change.

But with her "grand coalition" now near collapse midway through its term, some are questioning whether Merkel's jet-setting has come at a price at home. Following a week of bitter political fighting, its two main parties – the liberal Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – are locked in a standoff, jeopardizing myriad domestic reforms.

"While others represent the country, we work for the people in Germany," wrote SPD member Peter Struck in a letter recently reprinted in the influential news magazine Der Spiegel, a barb widely read as a swipe against Merkel. "Numbers will decide the next elections, not foreign visits and red carpets."

Now the question facing Merkel is whether she, praised as a consensus-builder abroad, can mend the deep divisions within her coalition and stave off early elections that some say are growing increasingly hard to avoid.

"What she has done is very beneficial for her own reputation with the public," says Rainer Stinner, a member of parliament for the Liberal Party, which has aligned itself at different times with the CDU and SPD. "But she has not been very visible in the coalition," he adds, comparing the partnership to a marriage. "If you are married, and you talk to each other in this way, well, that must be the end of the union."

Reforms hang in the balance

Merkel returned last week from talks with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to preside over an emergency meeting between the CDU and SPD. The parties agreed to extend full unemployment benefits for older people, which the SPD has fiercely backed and the CDU resisted, but that news was overshadowed by the resignation of Franz Münterfering. The leader of the SPD, Mr. Münterfering was one of the chief architects of the grand coalition and enjoyed good relations with Merkel.

Both parties remain at loggerheads over a national minimum wage, commuter tax breaks, child-care benefits, domestic security, and the privatization of the state railway Deutsche Bahn (DB), whose conductors' strike – expected to resume Tuesday – is being billed by Western media as the worst in DB's history.

Experts suggest that Merkel, cognizant of the difficulties of two historic rival parties governing together, may be biding her time.

"Merkel has a clear mind," says Jüngen Falter, a political science professor at Johannes Guttenberg University in Mainz. "She knows that under the circumstances of a grand coalition, with two partners that are almost exactly equally strong, she cannot govern, she cannot rule as she might do in another coalition."

With a strong CDU showing in next year's state elections, Merkel could be emboldened to call for early elections after which she could form a new coalition. But with strong popularity – helped, no doubt, by the fact that unemployment is down to its lowest levels in 14 years – Merkel may be better off waiting until 2009, as planned, others argue. "She would be in a much better position campaigning as the ruling chancellor," Professor Falter says.

Experts point to last week's agreement on unemployment benefits as an example that Merkel can win compromises inside the parliament. The CDU opposed the measure, saying it did not encourage job-seeking, but still voted for it after getting assurances that it would not be costly to implement.

Merkel's partner moving away

But despite Merkel's efforts, the SPD, under the leadership of new party boss Kurt Beck, is likely to continue to move away from the coalition in an effort to win back its traditional liberal voting bloc, which has become disenchanted in recent years by what it sees as the SPD turning its back on social welfare reforms.

"During the last two years the major objective of the SPD was to be involved in the government. Now, with the resignation of Münterfering, that involvement is over," says Joerg Himmelreich, an analyst in the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "For me, that's a turning point. The last strong supporter of the government for the SPD has left the boat, and now it's all about the next election, two years from now."

For the CDU's part, it needs to win at least 40 percent of the vote to have a chance at forming its own government in 2009. It's in a good position, already governing eight of the country's 16 states, and cogoverning another four with the SPD.

The reforms that hang in the balance will form the campaign platforms of both parties in the next two years, experts say.

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