- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

UPDATED:

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked headed for a decisive victory Sunday that could lead to a center-right coalition government for the next four years, replacing the alliance with Socialists that limited Germany’s policy options.

Mrs. Merkel’s chllenger, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democrats, conceded defeat in Germany’s election, telling supporters, “There is no talking around it: This is a bitter defeat.”

The latest projections, according to the Associated Press, show that Mr. Steinmeier’s party — which has been in the German government for the past 11 years — is headed for its worst parliamentary election result since World War II. It captured well under 25 percent of the vote in Sunday’s national election.

Mrs. Merkel’s conservatives did well in the vote and should be able to form a new center-right government.

In Mrs. Merkel’s first election as party leader in 2005, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won just over 35 percent of the vote. It wanted to partner with the right-of-center and pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), as it had 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 CDU into a “grand coalition” with the SPD, which had governed since 1998. The Social Democrat (SPD) leader, Mr. Steinmeier, became foreign minister and was Mrs. Merkel’s main opponent on the campaign trail in the last several months.

Going into Sunday’s election, both the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats faced sliding polling numbers, with the SPD risking a result lower than the post-war low of 28.8 percent it received in 1953. Still, Mr. Steinmeier expressed optimism as he voted in Berlin on Sunday morning.

“I’ve felt a great amount of support and a lot of interest in our cause, and that’s why I’m very, very confident about today,” he told reporters.

The latest polls, which turned out wrong four years ago, predicted about 36 percent for the CDU and about 13 percent for the FDP — just enough to enable them to form a government. That would allow Mrs. Merkel to implement economic reforms and cut taxes, which were among her 2005 campaign promises but could not happen once the SPD was in government.

“We are going to fight to the end, because every vote counts,” Mrs. Merkel told a rally in Berlin on Saturday.

Robert Koehler, chairman of SGL Group, a leading manufacturer of carbon-based products, said that unless the FDP is the CDU’s coalition partner, Germany “may descend into socialism.” He disagreed with the common perception that Sunday’s vote will be inconsequential, saying it is “the most crucial election” since World War II.

Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the Free Democrats, said on Saturday that these were the “final hours in opposition” for his party. Until 1998, the FDP was part of several Christian Democrat-led governments. He said the end to the “grand coalition” would also mean the end of “higher taxes and more bureaucracy.”

However, another “grand coalition” is not out of the question, some analysts said.

Stefan Elfenbein, a journalist and former correspondent for 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.”

Whatever coalition is formed after the election, Germany’s foreign policy is unlikely to change. Even though initial signs are emerging that Germany has started to climb out of the current recession, the new government will have to deal with a soaring deficit and rising unemployment.

But on foreign policy, one key issue that Germany’s next government will have to contend with is future deployments of German troops in Afghanistan.

Germany’s present deployment is controversal at home, and its rules of engagement in Afghanistan are limited, reflecting anti-war sentiment pervasive in Germany that reflects its Nazi past.

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