There were few surprises in the German election campaign; even a last-minute scandal over the Green party’s paedophilia policies harked backed to the 1980s. It was also entirely predictable that Angela Merkel would secure a third term as Chancellor. What few expected, though, was the style in which she would do it.
At polling stations on Sunday, German voters delivered an unequivocal endorsement of the leader already nicknamed “Mummy”. Her Christian Democratic Union party romped home with 41.5 per cent of the vote, its best performance for more than 20 years and almost enough, with its sister party, the Christian Social Union, to achieve the outright majority that has eluded every chancellor since Konrad Adenauer in the 1950s. No wonder that even the eminently calm-and-cautious Ms Merkel was moved to describe the outcome as “a super result”.
True, under Germany’s multi-preference voting system, some of the CDU’s success can be explained by the plummeting support for its erstwhile coalition partner. Indeed, the liberal Free Democratic party fared so badly that, for the first time in its history, it will not be represented in the Bundestag. But the FDP’s near-collapse cannot account for the entirety of the CDU’s eight-point gain.
For that, Ms Merkel herself takes much of the credit. She has built her softly-softly approach into a personal brand so strong that her hand-gesture – the “Merkel rhombus” – was used as an election poster. Germans may worry about many things, from ageing infrastructure to inequality, but they trust “Angie” more than ever.
What would be an achievement in any climate is, against the backdrop of the euro crisis, more remarkable still. Outside Germany, of course, Ms Merkel is far from popular. But the opprobrium in which she is held in the austerity-hit southern eurozone overlooks the fact that her opponents would, on paper, do little differently. In fact, without her ability to balance irreconcilable opposites – Greece’s need for a bailout, say, with German taxpayers’ resistance – and to move forward only as far as that balance can be maintained, the situation might be so much worse. It is for this reason, as much as any, that Sunday’s result is to be welcomed.
What it will mean in detail, however – for the German economy, for the euro, for David Cameron’s plans to claw back powers from Brussels – awaits the outcome of coalition negotiations now beginning. Because, despite their success, the CDU/CSU are still five seats short of an absolute majority. The most likely result is a “Grand Coalition” with the centre-left Social Democratic party. But with much reluctance among SPD supporters, it is far from a foregone conclusion.
For all the Chancellor’s undeniable triumph, the road ahead is no easier than the one behind was. Any number of thorny issues were put on hold pending the vote, not least the eurozone’s putative banking union. Given the circumstances, more of the famous Merkel caution is no bad thing. But even she cannot wait forever.