Voters give blessing to a new political marriage

 

Sharing the glory with the CDU leader was Guido Westerwelle, who is likely to become Germany’s first gay foreign minister, writes DEREK SCALLYin Berlin

AFTER FOUR loveless years, German voters gave Angela Merkel their blessing last night for a no-contest divorce.

Hoarse and jet-lagged, the Christian Democrat (CDU) leader managed an exhausted smile as she walked out on her political marriage of convenience with the Social Democrats (SPD).

This morning she wakes up with her new political partner, the liberal Free Democrats, who, until 1998, supported the politics of her mentor, Helmut Kohl.

At the CDU headquarters, the wedding reception guests downed chilled beer in happy gulps until the bride, wearing red, was wheeled out. “You’re happy, I’m happy too,” said Merkel, stating the obvious. “We achieved our election goal, a stable new government majority with the FDP.”

Amid the frenetic cheers of “Angie! Angie!” from young supporters in yellow T-shirts, it was almost possible to forget this was the CDU’s worst election result in 60 years. Blame though for the result, down even on the disastrous 2005 result, was put not in Berlin but at the Bavarian door of the CDU’s sister party, the CSU.

With another victory under her belt, it was clear last night that it will be a long time yet before any of the CDU’s crown princes will begin sawing at this chancellor’s throne. “Angela Merkel is indisputably the chancellor of our country with uncontested competence,” said Christian Wulff, CDU state governor of Lower Saxony.

Sharing the glory last night was FDP leader Guido Westerwelle.

After 30 years in politics and 11 parched years in opposition, he quenched his thirst for power with prosecco at a party last night a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate. Welcomed by supporters cheering Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring, the tanned Westerwelle (47) has finally made it into office on the third attempt as leader. Going by FDP tradition, he is headed for the foreign ministry, the first gay man to hold Germany’s highest diplomatic post.

After the evening news, voters had a chance to get used to the sight of the new man at Merkel’s side. Wasting no time to bathe in the glow of victory, they attacked the SPD’s election campaign claim that they are planning a welfare state massacre.

“The idea that you could win an election with scare tactics didn’t work,” said Merkel to her former deputy leader, SPD challenger Frank Walter Steinmeier. Westerwelle joined in, shouting: “Our parties already heads coalitions in the six largest federal states and there’s no social unrest there.”

With a half-smile on his face, Steinmeier seemed to be enjoying already last night his new bogeyman role as leader of the opposition. “I doubt very much the new government has what it takes,” he said after cursory congratulations.

“In opposition we will continue to look for ways out of the crisis where stronger shoulders carry more than the weaker ones.”

At the SPD headquarters bearing his name, a statue of legendary party leader Willy Brandt could offer little comfort as he stared down on party supporters munching unhappily through bowls of chile con carne.

The party was bumped from office last night after losing a record 11 per cent support, the price for a thankless junior role in the grand coalition and lingering anger at unpopular Schröder-era reforms.

Three groups squeezed the party: stay-at-home SPD voters, younger voters – down 17 per cent – and supporters in its traditional industrial Rhine-Ruhr heartland – down 12 per cent.

The SPD takes with it to the opposition benches plans for a statutory minimum wage and an entry-level tax cut. From the chalky expression of centrist SPD leader Franz Müntefering, it was clear last night that he knew his position was far from secure.

As Gerhard Schröder’s right-hand-man, the party’s left-wing is already mulling plans to remove him after the disastrous result.

“For the SPD we have the possibility now in opposition to create a clear Social Democratic profile once again,” said Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and leading light of the SPD left wing.

As head of a coalition in the German capital with the Left Party, Wowereit would be a likely leader of a future alliance at federal level.

Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine appeared to make the first approach last night. The former SPD leader put aside bitterness towards his former party – happy with his party’s record 12 per cent result – to express his “deep regret” at the SPD showing.

For the Greens, it was a bitter-sweet election night: a record result of almost 11 per cent yet another term on the opposition benches. The CDU-FDP victory is the death knell for their proudest achievement in office: a decade-old agreement to shut down by 2020 all of Germany’s nuclear power plants.