Berlin // Angela Merkel will face increasing pressure to drop her softly-softly style of government and mutate into an Iron Lady after winning a second term in Sunday's federal election. The German chancellor smiled coyly at the chants of "Angie! Angie!" from supporters after the results confirmed her re-election, but she knows that governing will become more difficult in the next four years and her reputation as "Mutti" of the nation may wane as she presides over unpopular economic measures that she shunned in her first term.
Sunday's vote has radically changed the political landscape in Europe's largest economy. The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), with whom Mrs Merkel's conservatives shared power, have been banished into opposition and Mrs Merkel will be able to form a centre-Right coalition with the resurgent pro-business Free Democrat Party (FDP) which wants to roll back the state, cut taxes and deregulate markets.
Mrs Merkel's beaten challenger, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD, is expected to be succeeded as foreign minister by the FDP leader, Guido Westerwelle, who backs Mrs Merkel's foreign policy of close ties with the United States and a commitment to the military mission in Afghanistan. Mr Westerwelle will be Germany's first openly homosexual foreign minister. After four years of enforced consensus during which the two biggest parties were locked together in a "grand coalition", German politics will now shift back to old-style confrontation between the Left and Right. Mrs Merkel will have to drop her hands-off, mediating approach to government and start getting her hands dirty in the rough-and-tumble of domestic politics, commentators say.
She now has the coalition she always claimed she wanted, but it remains unclear what she will do with her new-found freedom. She ditched her agenda of business and tax reforms after the 2005 election and looked comfortable governing with the SPD, partly because it gave her an excuse for shelving controversial policies. That helped her become one of the most popular German chancellors in history. Now no one knows what she really stands for. Mrs Merkel kept her campaign pledges vague and focused on promising to get Germany out of its economic downturn. Her plans are as inscrutable as the smiles with which she reacted to her victory. But she was at pains to reassure voters yesterday that she would not start dismantling the welfare state just because she had changed her coalition partner.
"I see my task as being chancellor of all Germans," she told a news conference. "We want to make clear that we are equally interested in the welfare of all the different groups of society. I am not going to change totally just because the government has changed." Mrs Merkel said she planned to start coalition talks with the FDP as soon as possible and to have her new government in place by November 9, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her coalition will have 332 seats in the 622-seat lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, giving her a comfortable majority of 20 seats.
"Mrs Merkel must move fast to shed the mask of the perfect pragmatist," said Adam Jasser, the programme director at DemosEuropa, a Polish think tank. "She has become so good at concealing her beliefs that even sympathetic analysts began to say she simply had none. Now is the moment to prove them wrong and to come out with a vision that will help revitalise and modernise Germany and spur a reform drive across Europe."
The FDP was last in government under Helmut Kohl, from 1982 until 1998, and has often been kingmaker as junior partner in German coalitions. It is expected to get four cabinet posts including the economy and justice ministries. Brimming with confidence after it jumped almost five points from the last election in 2005 to score its best result in a national election - 14.6 per cent - the FDP is likely to push for tax cuts and a loosening of rules protecting workers from dismissal.
"I think deep down Merkel would have preferred to stick with the grand coalition," Dietmar Herz, a political analyst at Erfurt University, said in an interview. "Governing is going to get a lot more difficult for her than it was the Social Democrats. "There is going to be a row about what direction her government should take. The FDP wants a different economic policy and there are big elements of the conservative party that were very unhappy about Merkel's shift to the Left in her first term."
Mrs Merkel said her focus was to get Germany out of its worst economic downturn since the 1930s and to tackle the ballooning government deficit, which has surged as a result of corporate bailouts and stimulus packages to cope with the crisis. "If the chancellor continues to play the role of the nation's mummy, she will have difficulties with the FDP and her own party," wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung, a leading centre-Left newspaper. "But if she turns into an Iron Lady, she will lose her kudos and reputation among the population. Which means that Angela Merkel's golden era is over."