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Merkel's sweep in Germany extends Europe's shift right

German Chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) Angela Merkel.

FABRIZIO BENSCH/Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

The collapse of Europe's left-leaning political consensus continued Sunday night as Germany's Social Democrats ended 11 years in coalition governments with a crushing defeat at the hands of a conservative coalition that re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The vote makes Ms. Merkel the latest in a succession of conservative leaders to win strong support in formerly centre-left countries. Her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have governed Germany since 2005 in an awkward power-sharing coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD).

But last night's vote allows her to form a broadly right-wing government with the libertarian Free Democrats (FDP), who campaigned on a tax-cutting platform.

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Germany, the largest economy in Europe, has been hit hard by the economic downturn under the leadership of Ms. Merkel. But instead of punishing the chancellor's party, voters appeared to lash out at the Social Democrats, who saw their support plummet to 23.1 per cent, down 11.1 points from 2005.

A handful of those votes went to the socialist Left Party, comprised of former East Germany communists and figures from the far left of the Social Democrats, which saw a slight rise from 10 to 12 per cent support, largely because it is the only party not to support the Afghanistan war. The Greens also saw a small boost.

But mainly, analysts said, the left-wing voters simply stayed away, without any sense of future direction.

"It was a bitter defeat," acknowledged Social Democrat leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a traditional TV appearance with Ms. Merkel after the vote.

"We weren't able to persuade all our voters to come to the polls. Many of the non-voters are former SPD sympathizers, and we have to work to win them back in the coming years. We have to lead the SPD back to its old strength."

The risk is palpable. Similar centre-left parties in Italy and France have been driven to near-extinction by conservative votes in recent years, and European parliament elections this year saw nearly every country support a majority of centre-right candidates.

As if to drive the point home, last night also saw Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, a stalwart of the moderate left, lose his parliamentary majority in a humiliating vote.

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As that happened, Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, gave a speech to his wounded Labour Party calling for spending cuts and crackdowns on bankers' bonuses amid polls showing that an election, which must be held by next summer, would produce an overwhelming majority for the Conservatives of David Cameron.

Yet, it is difficult to call Germany's results last night, or Europe's in recent years, a decisive crisis-driven shift to the right - not of the sort that sent British and German voters into the arms of Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl in the inflation-battered years of the early 1980s.

Votes for Ms. Merkel's CDU actually declined slightly, to 33.8 per cent from 35.2 per cent, a far cry from years when German conservatives stood a chance of winning outright majorities.

And while the Free Democrats saw a powerful resurgence, up 4.9 points to 14.7 per cent, the party's deep fiscal conservatism is matched by a social liberalism, highlighted by the open homosexuality of its leader Guido Westerwelle, that does not fit the traditional conservative template.

While there has been some speculation that Ms. Merkel will use this unfettered hold on power to unleash a more purely conservative platform, most analysts believe she will continue with her mix of low-tax liberalism and hawkish military policy with social policies designed to attract immigrants and working women with citizenship support and hundreds of thousands of subsidized childcare spaces.

Ms. Merkel stressed that non-ideological, big-tent inclusiveness last night. "I am happy that we have achieved a great thing, to get a stable majority in the new government made up of conservatives and the Free Democratic Party," she said.

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"I want to be the chancellor of all Germans, to enable our country to do better and come out of this crisis."

For the left, Sunday seemed to teach a difficult lesson about the realities of coalition politics. As much as Mr. Steinmeier of the Social Democrats told voters that his party had been responsible for the government's more popular policies - including the state subsidy of payroll costs in order to prevent mass unemployment - his party often seemed indistinguishable from its opponent.

In a televised leaders' debate last week, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Steinmeier spent most of the hour complimenting one another on their co-operation over policies, leading one moderator to call them "an old married couple."

"As long as social democratic parties are locked in coalitions with centre-right parties, voters won't know where their policies begin and those of the other parties end," said Gerd Langguth, a former CDU MP and biographer of Ms. Merkel.

"This is a very serious and dangerous moment for the SPD, but also it is possibly the best opportunity they have - they have to spend some time in opposition to develop a distinct identity. For parties like these, co-operation is death."

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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