Seen for much of the past six years as a reliable leader, whose knack for brokering deals made up for a lack of bold vision, Merkel’s image has taken a beating recently and polls show an increasing number of Germans view her government as directionless.
Merkel’s troubles can be traced back to two March decisions, when she dropped her support for nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, then backed Germany’s abstention from a UN vote on military action in Libya.
Coming shortly before a crucial state election, which her party subsequently lost, the steps looked to many like cynical political ploys to placate domestic opinion.
But it is Merkel’s piecemeal approach to the eurozone’s debt crisis that has come under fire over the past week and now threatens her grip on power in Germany.
For some Germans, she has gone too far by bailing out stricken eurozone members and agreeing to intervention in the bond markets to prop them up. For others, she has not done enough, shirking bold steps that might solve the debt crisis because they would be unpopular at home.
This conflict will come to a head next month.
Merkel’s coalition has a 20-seat majority in the lower house of parliament. But if she is hit with dissent in her own ranks, and is forced to rely on opposition parties to pass legislation to expand the single currency bloc’s rescue mechanism — the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) — then her coalition could collapse, sparking early elections.
“The euro crisis entered a new phase over the past week,” influential German weekly Der Spiegel said on Sunday.
“Before the main question had been how the common currency could be saved. Now it is also about saving Merkel’s chancellorship. If her coalition does not deliver a majority for the enhanced euro rescue mechanism in the autumn, people close to the chancellor say, the coalition is all but finished.”
The chances of Merkel failing to secure her own majority in the EFSF vote, likely to take place on September 23, still seem slim.
Her Christian Democrats (CDU), hovering at a weak 30% in opinion polls, have little incentive now to bring forward an election that is not scheduled to take place until the autumn of 2013.
Merkel’s conservative bloc — composed of the CDU, Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and Free Democrats (FDP) — has shown discipline in previous eurozone aid votes.
“I expect she will get majority backing from her own coalition,” said Gerd Langguth, a political scientist at Bonn University and biographer of Merkel, suggesting around fifteen dissenters.
“If it’s not enough, Merkel would be forced to resign. It would lead to a crisis. No one is interested in an early election.”
Critical voices from within the party have grown louder over the past week, with senior CDU lawmaker Wolfgang Bosbach vowing publicly to vote against the EFSF increase and popular Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen — seen as a potential successor to Merkel — wading into the eurozone debate with comments that went against official policy.
Perhaps most damaging of all, however, was former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s public criticism of his protege last week. Kohl plucked Merkel out of obscurity in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, bringing her into his cabinet and helping to launch one of the most unlikely and astonishing political careers that Germany has ever seen.
In an interview with newspaper Internationale Politik, Germany’s longest-serving post-war leader and father of reunification broke his silence and unleashed a broadside against Merkel’s foreign policy, saying it lacked direction and risked undermining Germany’s global influence.