Merkel is buoyed as rivals 
leave, youngsters step in

Dismissing the government’s slump in the opinion polls, Chancellor Angela Merkel rallied her party this week during its annual congress, at which her one time rivals bowed out of office to be replaced by a younger generation.

By Judy Dempsey

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Published: Fri 19 Nov 2010, 9:52 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

With the political landscape changing in other European countries, especially over how to deal with the impact of the global financial crisis and how to integrate foreigners, Merkel strongly defended her policies just over a year into her latest term. “Throw them into the wastepaper bin,” she said of the poll results. “We are we, the Christian Democratic Union. We can do it!”

The repeated loud applause she received, along with her re-election as party leader with 90 per cent of the vote from the 1,000 delegates, contrasts with the criticism she received in recent months from inside and outside her party. Some members of the Christian Democratic Union have said she lacks leadership, damaging the party’s credibility. The United States and several other countries in the European Union have said she is allowing Germany’s trade surplus to increase at the expense of imports and consumer spending.

And during the Greek financial crisis this year, she was accused of encouraging divisiveness in the European Union with her tough stance, agreeing to a financial rescue package only once Prime Minister George Papandreou introduced an austerity and savings programme. Merkel defended that policy, saying that if the euro collapsed, so would Europe.

Merkel also waded into the often emotional debate over the integration of immigrants, particularly the large Turkish Muslim population. Unusually for Merkel, she referred several times in her 75-minute speech to the Christian dimension of her party in a bid to reassure the grass roots that she was not losing sight of its traditions and social roots.

Former conservative regional leaders who once coveted Germany’s top political job officially, but who also represented such Christian values, left the leadership of the Christian Democrats on Monday. They included Jurgen Ruttgers, the former party chief of North Rhine-Westphalia; Roland Koch from Hesse; and Dieter Althaus from Thuringia.

“Merkel’s contenders, at least from the old guard, are now gone, too,” said Gerd Langguth, political science professor at Bonn University and author of Merkel’s biography. “We cannot exclude a younger generation coming through.”

Those younger faces, in their 50s, who were promoted to the leadership include the environment minister, Norbert Rottgen, and the labor minister, Ursula von der Leyen. These two politicians and the defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, could one day pose a challenge to Merkel.

She struck a balance between older Roman Catholic voters and young voters in urging the party to adopt modern policies for families, women and the environment.

“With the speech she made, Mrs. Merkel struck the right tone that won her that big support for her re-election,” Langguth said. “It was an inclusive speech. No one was left out.”

The party congress - held in Karlsruhe, a university city in the wealthy conservative state of Baden-Wurttemberg - comes in the wake of bickering over tax and energy policies inside Merkel’s coalition, which includes her party; its Bavaria-based sister party, the Christian Social Union; and the Free Democrats.

The result is that support for the governing coalition has fallen to 38 per cent from 47 per cent since it was elected in September 2009. The popularity of the Free Democrats has suffered most: It has plummeted to just five per cent from 14 per cent, according to opinion polls published last week by Forsa, Infratest-dimap and Allensbach.

With her power over the Christian Democratic Union now stronger since she became party leader 10 years ago, Merkel told the packed auditorium that she had no intention of sharing power with the opposition Social Democrats or the Greens, who have jumped to 23 per cent in the latest opinion polls. The Greens are gaining support because of their opposition to the government’s decisions to extend the life of the nuclear power plants and continue to bring back from France nuclear waste material to be stored in Germany.

The Greens, too, have found support in their opposition to the construction of a new railroad station in Stuttgart, a major industrial city that is the capital of Baden-Wurttemberg. The modernising of the railroad network would not only reduce the travel time between the Czech Republic and France but also speed the transportation of goods, according to Deutsche Bahn, which is building it.

Merkel spoke out strongly in defense of her energy policies and the rail modernisation, saying it was in the national interest to pursue such goals. The railroad complex alone would create 17,000 jobs, she said.

With a new election cycle beginning next March, Merkel told delegates that the coalition would be put to the test in Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Wurrtemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Mecklenburg-Pomerania and Berlin.


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