Weakened Merkel begins fourth term as German chancellor
As she takes charge of her most fragile coalition yet, some doubt whether she will last the full term
Germany’s parliament voted on Wednesday to re-elect Angela Merkel for a fourth, and likely final, term as chancellor, ending months of political deadlock in Europe’s biggest economy.
Lawmakers in Berlin’s Bundestag elected her by a lower-than-expected margin of 364-315, while nine abstained. Despite this less-than-ringing endorsement, Ms Merkel smiled as she told parliament: “I accept the vote.”
She has been Germany’s leader since 2005, but her political standing was greatly diminished after national elections last September, in which her party bloc fell to historic lows.
Her new term is expected to be her most challenging yet, as she takes charge of a fragile coalition and seeks to juggle competing domestic demands.
The alliance of her conservative Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) has 399 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.
That means at least 35 coalition lawmakers didn’t even support her on Wednesday.
Given her precarious position, some pundits have expressed doubts over whether the long-serving leader will last the full term. But others are more optimistic, pointing out Ms Merkel’s fighting nature which has seen her defy the odds in the past.
“I’m quite sure she will go the full four years,” said Leopold Traugott, a policy analyst for the Open Europe thinktank. “There has been a lot of criticism of her, but people have time and again underestimated Merkel and predicted her imminent demise. So far she has always managed to pull through and I think we will see that again this time.”
The SPD initially planned to go into opposition after September’s election, in which they also crashed to historic lows. But after Ms Merkel’s talks with two smaller parties failed in November, she turned to the SPD out of desperation and asked them to prolong the “grand coalition” that has governed Germany since 2013.
Two-thirds of SPD members gave their blessing for the coalition deal clinched last month, paving the way for Wednesday’s parliamentary vote, in which Ms Merkel ran unopposed.
She was then formally appointed by Germany’s president Frank-Walker Steinmeier before taking the oath of office in the lower house. Ministers were sworn in later in the day, with new faces in all the most important posts – the finance, foreign, economy and interior ministries.
In the biggest change, Ms Merkel’s coalition deal hands the finance ministry to the SPD for the first time in eight years, giving them a platform to shape euro-area policy.
Designated finance minister Olaf Scholz, who replaces steely conservative Wolfgang Schaeuble, is calling for stronger ties within Europe, although he’s given few hints on specific policy goals.
Another new addition to Ms Merkel’s top team is Heiko Maas, the new foreign minister who replaces fellow Social Democrat, Sigmar Gabriel. Mr Maas, who was justice minister in Ms Merkel's outgoing government, is best known for pushing through a controversial law aimed at cracking down on hate speech on social networks.
Aside from managing her coalition partners at home, Ms Merkel also faces a growing list of international challenges, such as a potential Europe-US trade war, a fraught relationship with Russia and France’s calls for closer ties between EU nations.
The 63-year-old has dominated Germany's political landscape for years and is Europe’s longest-serving leader.
But her authority was dented by her decision in 2015 to commit Germany to an open-door policy on migration, resulting in an influx of more than one million people. The anger towards this policy was reflected in the surge of support for the far-right, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in September’s election, which won votes from both coalition partners.
Ms Merkel is now likely to be challenged more often in a parliament that includes the AfD for the first time. In response to questions about her political standing after the election, Ms Merkel said she has no intention of quitting before her new term ends in 2021.
Updated: March 15, 2018 09:29 AM