By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 28, 2009
BERLIN, Sept. 27 -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel secured a decisive victory in federal elections Sunday, winning enough votes to form a new ruling coalition that should give her a freer hand to govern and provide support for closer ties with Washington.
Enhancing her reputation as the continent's top political power broker, Merkel became the first leader of a major European country to win reelection since the global financial crisis struck last year. Voters generally approved of her response to the recession, even though it has hammered Germany's export-dependent economy and has resulted in a huge amount of public debt.
German voters ignored warnings in recent days from leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda that they would punish Merkel's government for sending troops to Afghanistan -- German forces represent the third largest foreign contingent there, behind the United States and Britain. Although surveys show that a majority of Germans oppose the war, analysts said Merkel is unlikely to join other European countries, such as Italy, that have called for a quick withdrawal of forces.
"We don't want to forget that there are many problems in our country to be solved," Merkel told a cheering crowd in Berlin. "I think that tonight we can really celebrate, but I would say that after that there is work waiting for us."
Merkel, 55, grew up in the former East Germany. She enjoyed a warm personal rapport with President George W. Bush but got off to a cool start with the Obama administration.
She and her ministers were quick to blame the global recession on Wall Street and Washington, even though German banks had gobbled up huge amounts of toxic assets and German exporters had profited handsomely from the free-spending ways of U.S. consumers.
Analysts said her government has sought to repair some of the damage by toning down criticism and collaborating more closely on issues such as the oversight of international financial markets. They noted that Obama and Merkel appear to have improved their comfort level with each other and worked productively together at last week's Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh.
During the campaign, Merkel said she supported an international conference to discuss ways for the government of Afghanistan to take more responsibility for its own security. But she resisted calls to set a timetable for the withdrawal of Germany's 4,200 troops in Afghanistan.
Juergen Falter, a political science professor at the University of Mainz, said Merkel and her new government are unlikely to push for a quick exit, despite lingering public embarrassment over a German-ordered airstrike that killed about 100 Afghans this month in the northern province of Kunduz.
"The German government might agree to put more effort into sending police trainers, or other personnel to strengthen the Afghan military or to build new schools," he said. "But it definitely will not do anything sudden without having close consultations with Washington."
The final week of the election campaign was marked by several public threats issued by leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. They reminded voters of the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, which killed nearly 200 people and played a pivotal role in the defeat of the incumbent Spanish government.
In response to the threats, Germany stepped up security precautions at airports, train stations and other public places, even banning air traffic over the annual Oktoberfest beer extravaganza in Munich. But politicians largely ignored the threats, and analysts said the scare tactics did not affect the vote.
"Germans don't really feel there is a danger to them from al-Qaeda," said Nils Diedrich, a political analyst from the Free University of Berlin. "It's been a hot topic of discussion among the political class, but not for the man on the street."
With the elections over, Germany could face renewed overtures from Washington to help resettle detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The German government rebuffed a formal request from the Obama administration in April to accept nine inmates from Guantanamo. But Merkel did not rule out the idea, and officials in Berlin said they might be willing to reconsider after the elections.
For the past four years, Merkel had been forced to govern in an awkward coalition with the Social Democrats, a left-of-center party that draws heavy support from labor unions and built its reputation as a champion of Germany's generous social welfare programs.
But the Social Democrats, led by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were pummeled at the polls and ended with their worst electoral showing of the post-World War II era. Many longtime supporters deserted the Social Democrats and voted for the Left Party, which traces its roots to the former East German Communist Party.
"The voters have decided," Steinmeier said as he conceded the party would lose power. "The outcome is a bitter day for German social democracy. There is nothing to gloss over. It is a bitter defeat."
Merkel and her Christian Democrats are expected to form a new governing coalition with the Free Democrats, a pro-business party that has called for lower taxes and a slimmed-down bureaucracy.
The leader of the Free Democrats, Guido Westerwelle, is expected to become Germany's foreign minister in Merkel's new cabinet. His party has traditionally supported a close economic and political partnership with the United States.
Early returns showed the Christian Democrats with a plurality of about 34 percent of the vote, slightly less than in 2005 and one of the party's worst showings ever. But thanks to a record showing for the Free Democrats, which received about 15 percent of the vote, the two parties should have enough seats combined to take control of the German parliament.