Ill omens as Merkel stumbles back into fourth term

Record number of government MPs refuse to vote chancellor back into office

German chancellor Angela Merkel is sworn in as chancellor by the president of the German parliament. Photograph: EPA/Omer Messinger

German chancellor Angela Merkel is sworn in as chancellor by the president of the German parliament. Photograph: EPA/Omer Messinger

 

It was just before 10am on Wednesday, after 171 days of waiting, that Chancellor Angela Merkel finally got her hands on the prize: power. A fourth term was hers, but her broad smile belied the cost: a record number of government MPs who refused to vote her back into office.

An hour earlier, with a wave to the public gallery and her 89-year-old mother and husband, Merkel strode into the Bundestag chamber. Swapping previous black blazers for white, she had turned around a historic defeat for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in September and negotiated a maze of mind-numbing talks and dead ends to get back into power.

However, almost six months on from a historic defeat for her CDU, the relief on Wednesday was overshadowed by ill omens for the looming term.

Some 364 Bundestag MPs voted for Merkel, 315 opposed and nine abstained. The result was Merkel’s tightest ever: 35 fewer votes for her than grand coalition seats – and just nine votes beyond the absolute or “chancellor” majority.

“There were more dissenting votes than I would have expected,” said Andrea Nahles, Bundestag leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), back in as junior partner. She insisted her party had all backed Merkel, suggesting dissenters were CDU conservatives, furious at expensive concessions to the SPD to secure another term.

Standing ovation

When the result came in, and Merkel accepted the mandate, her CDU allies gave her a standing ovation. But many of her future SPD coalition partners didn’t applaud. And Wolfgang Schäuble, her long-time finance minister and now president of the Bundestag, smiled coolly as he wished her well with “mastering your great task” ahead.

Smaller protests punctuated a day of shuttling between the Reichstag building and the Bellevue Palace, official seat of the president. A man was ejected from the parliament public gallery for shouting “Merkel must go”, and waving a poster. Another man who attempted to rush Merkel as she left the Reichstag building was wrestled to the ground and detained.

Meanwhile a member of the far-right opposition Alternative für Deutschland was fined €1,000 for tweeting a picture of his voting card from the secret ballot.

Amid the relief that Germany’s legal limbo is over was a palpable sense of resignation among some long-term Merkel allies. “This will not be an easy coalition, we have some difficult tasks ahead,” said Volker Kauder, CDU floor leader.

Responding to criticism within her ranks, the fourth Merkel cabinet is younger and almost evenly split between men and women. Outside cabinet, Merkel has appointed another woman as her general secretary: her confidante Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Over at the SPD, meanwhile, Nahles is its designated – and first woman – chair.

Weak showing

Despite progress for women in German federal politics, opposition parties wasted no time pouring scorn on the weak showing for Merkel.

“It shows the chancellor has lost authority,” said Christian Lindner, leader of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who walked out of coalition talks last November.

Left Party co-leader Katja Kipping tweeted: “Only nine votes over the line. Merkel and the new government have stumbled out of the blocks.”

Aware of high expectations – and high stakes such as in a looming trade war with the US – Merkel has vowed to waste no time in getting down to work.

And after six months French president Emmanuel Macron signalled on Wednesday that he is tired of waiting for Berlin to respond to his EU reform proposals. “If Germany doesn’t move,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily, “then part of my project is doomed to failure”.

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