- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

UPDATED:

BERLIN | German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday she wants to form a new center-right government quickly — at the latest by the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall on Nov. 9 — after she secured a second term in office in parliamentary elections Sunday.

Exit polls and early results suggested a center-right coalition likely to be more complementary to the United States on Afghanistan and other global issues.

“Germany is entitled to have a new government quickly,” Mrs. Merkel said Monday. It would be good “if I could greet [foreign] heads of government on Nov. 9 with a new government.”

For the past four years, Mrs. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats had shared power with the Social Democrats.

In Sunday’s election, the Social Democrats suffered their worst showing since World War II with just more than 23 percent of the vote.

“There is no talking around it — this is a bitter defeat,” Social Democrat leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier told supporters at the party’s headquarters after the polls closed.

Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party received about 48 percent of the votes, enough to form a coalition government that could rule for the next four years.

Mr. Steinmeier, the foreign minister, most likely will be succeeded by Free Democrat leader Guido Westerwelle, officials from the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats said. The move would make Mr. Westerwelle the world’s first openly gay foreign minister.

“We can really celebrate tonight, but afterwards we have a hard job ahead of us,” Mrs. Merkel said to a jubilant crowd at the CDU headquarters.

With the Free Democrats in government, German foreign policy is expected to be more pro-American, and Berlin’s positions on Iran and Afghanistan are likely to be closer to those of the United States, said Volker Schlegel, a former career diplomat.

On Sunday, Mrs. Merkel got what she wanted four years ago. The Christian Democrats wanted to partner with the Free Democrats, as they have done many times in the past, but their combined votes were not enough to garner the necessary majority in the Bundestag, the parliament’s lower house.

That forced the Christian Democrats into a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, who have governed since 1998, preventing Mrs. Merkel from implementing the reforms she promised in 2005. Now she has the mandate to do it, observers said.

“There are no more excuses for inaction,” said a Christian Democrat member who asked that his name not be used, because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Even though initial signs are emerging that Germany has started to climb out of a recession, the new government will have to deal with a soaring deficit and rising unemployment.

It also faces the challenge of integrating parts of eastern Germany that remain underdeveloped and somewhat isolated from the rest of the country 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“This country needs clarity, and that’s what we got tonight,” said Fred B. Irwin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany.

Robert Koehler, chairman of SGL Group, a leading manufacturer of carbon-based products, said that, had the Free Democrats not done well, Germany would have “descended into socialism.” He disagreed with the common perception that Sunday’s vote would be inconsequential, calling it “the most crucial election” since World War II.

In foreign policy, Mrs. Merkel has repaired much of the damage to Berlin’s relationship with Washington after Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s highly public break with the George W. Bush administration over the Iraq war.

Germany has been an active participant in Western efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Mrs. Merkel left the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh last week before President Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Iran of having a secret nuclear site. However, she asked Mr. Obama to announce publicly that the group had her support.

The German position on sanctions if Iran continues to defy Western demands is likely to toughen, analysts said. The new government is also likely to maintain Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan, where it has 4,200 troops as part of the NATO-led international force, despite growing domestic opposition.

The only party that has called for the troops’ withdrawal is the far-left Linke, which won an impressive 12 percent of the vote Sunday. The Greens, the Social Democrats’ coalition partner until 2005, received only 10 percent.

Although Mr. Steinmeier was Mrs. Merkel’s main opponent during the campaign, they seemed to get along well, people who know both of them said. In fact, many Germans wanted the “grand coalition” to continue, noting that the past four years had been relatively free of public friction.

Stefan Elfenbein, a journalist and former correspondent of the Berliner Zeitung newspaper in New York, said the right-left coalition “forced the politicians to finally work together, rather than against each other.”

“It ended the long years of power struggles between the two leading parties. People were sick of seeing politicians bickering,” he said. “Also, Merkel as a woman was the perfect chancellor to bring all these politicians together, to make them work for the country - not for their own good.”

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