Germany's Merkel starts 3rd term with new allies

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

BERLIN (AP) — Angela Merkel has won over Germans as a no-drama leader in turbulent economic times, firmly establishing her country as Europe's financial taskmaster while preserving welfare comforts and Germany's status as a reluctant power in the wider world.

The 59-year-old conservative was sworn in for a third term as chancellor Tuesday, at the head of a "grand coalition" of right and left and with a huge parliamentary majority. It's an alliance of traditional rivals that emerged from an awkward election result nearly three months ago.

Though she's still at the top, she has now changed coalition partners twice, underlining both her ideological flexibility and her ability to position herself as a reassuring, consensus leader in unsettling times. That serves her well with an electorate that doesn't yearn for radical change or charismatic leaders after the turmoil of the 20th century that saw Germany defeated in two world wars and then divided into two rival states.

Merkel says the new government's priorities will be "solid finances, secure prosperity and social security" — encompassing a mixture of center-left priorities such as a new national minimum wage with a pledge not to raise taxes and to stop running up new debt.

"Together, we want to make sure that people in Germany are doing even better in 2017 than today," she said Monday as her Union bloc and the center-left Social Democrats, Germany's two biggest parties, signed their coalition agreement. It bears the vague title "Shaping Germany's Future."

Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany and saw the political and economic systems radically changed with reunification, has led Europe's biggest economy through the 2008 financial crisis and now the eurozone debt crisis without inflicting on Germans the kind of painful reforms and spending cuts that other Europeans have had to endure — in part at Germany's insistence.

Labor-market reforms enacted by predecessor Gerhard Schroeder a decade ago have been credited with helping Germany weather the crises, while Merkel has benefited politically from low unemployment and economic growth that can make other Europeans' troubles seem far away.

"It is said of her that she doesn't specify what is at the end of the journey, but she governs with a steady hand," Lothar Probst, a political scientist at the University of Bremen, told Phoenix television. "People clearly like that. They have confidence in her and she is unpretentious."

The new coalition, which emerges from post-World War II Germany's longest effort to form a government, will feature some changes of emphasis at home. Merkel's previous, pro-business coalition partners were wiped out in the Sept. 22 elections, forcing her to reach across the aisle for new allies — the same ones with whom she governed in her first term, from 2005 to 2009.

In return for their support, the Social Democrats insisted on a mandatory minimum wage, which will be introduced in 2015, and on making it easier for longtime workers to retire at 63 rather than 67 — changes that have drawn criticism from business leaders. Citizenship laws will be liberalized to allow German-born children of immigrants to hold two passports, largely benefiting ethnic Turks.

Merkel has a record of abandoning conservative orthodoxy and reaching out to centrist voters, for instance by abandoning military conscription and, in her one dramatically abrupt policy reversal, accelerating Germany's exit from nuclear power after Japan's Fukushima disaster.

The Social Democrats' leader, new Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, says the coalition deal is "good for people in Germany and Europe."

In Europe, there will be little change to Germany's tough-love approach of offering struggling countries aid in exchange for reforms. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who has symbolized Germany's stance, remains in his job; the coalition agreement states that there will be no pooling of European countries' debt, which the Social Democrats have advocated in the past.

Germany has been far less assertive on the global stage, and anyone who expects that to change is likely to be disappointed. New Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served in the same position in Merkel's first term, noted approvingly that outgoing minister Guido Westerwelle "adhered to Germany's policy of military restraint; that wasn't always easy."

New Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman in Germany to take the job, has emphasized making the all-professional military an attractive employer rather than talking about future deployments. Germany has a large contingent in Afghanistan, but stayed out of NATO's mission in Libya and has been reluctant to get deeply involved in several other missions.

The opposition will struggle to cause Merkel any trouble over the next four years, with two left-leaning groups holding only 127 of the 631 parliamentary seats.

However, amid speculation that she won't seek a fourth term, Merkel will have to manage a potentially unwieldy Cabinet including rivals such as coalition partner Gabriel and von der Leyen, who is widely viewed as a potential successor at the head of her own party.

"I don't like this speculation," von der Leyen said this week. "I am deeply convinced that we have the perfect chancellor. In every generation, there is one chancellor. In my generation, that is Angela Merkel."