Bruised by months of post-election haggling, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is confirmed for fourth term

Parliamentary vote came 171 days after the election, nearly double the previous record

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 10:14pm

Germany’s parliament elected Angela Merkel for her fourth term as chancellor on Wednesday, putting an end to nearly six months of political drift in Europe’s biggest economy.

Lawmakers voted 364-315 to re-elect Merkel, Germany’s leader since 2005, who ran unopposed. The coalition of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union and the centre-left Social Democrats has 399 of the 709 seats in parliament.

Merkel, wearing a white blazer, said “I accept the vote” and beamed happily as applause filled the Bundestag chamber, where her scientist husband Joachim Sauer and her 89-year-old mother Herlind Kasner were among the well-wishers.

Merkel will head a much-changed new Cabinet, with the governing parties – which are traditional rivals – keen to send signals of renewal after a September election in which all lost significant ground. There are new faces in the most important posts, the finance, foreign, economy and interior ministries.

The same parties have governed for the past four years but putting together the new administration has been unprecedentedly hard work.

Wednesday’s parliamentary vote came 171 days after the election, nearly double the previous record. The Social Democrats initially planned to go into opposition after crashing to their worst result since the second world war, but Germany’s president nudged them into a reluctant about-turn after Merkel’s talks with two smaller parties collapsed in November.

Merkel was able to take office only after two-thirds of the Social Democrats’ members approved in a ballot the coalition deal clinched last month.

At least 35 coalition lawmakers didn’t support her Wednesday, though that was in line with results at the beginning of her two previous “grand coalitions” of Germany’s biggest parties.

She will have to hold together what is potentially her most fragile coalition yet in what is widely expected to be her last term, while also addressing challenges such as a potential Europe-US trade war and seeking agreement with France and others on the future of a fractious European Union.

On Friday Merkel will head to Paris to discuss EU reform plans with French President Emmanuel Macron ahead of a March 22-23 summit, after a six-month stretch in which Berlin was hamstrung on the European and world stage.

Macron warned in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily that, without Germany on board, “part of my project would be doomed to failure”.

“We are completely dependent on each other. I do not believe for one second that a European project without or against Germany could succeed.”

Merkel’s incoming coalition has broadly welcomed Macron’s bold reform plans, meant to reinvigorate the bloc and counter extremists and populists who have made major gains in Western democracies.

She has argued that the EU must increasingly look after its own interests in the era of US President Donald Trump, who has questioned long-standing transatlantic defence ties and threatened a trade war.

Berlin advocates closer EU cooperation on defence, immigration and plans for a European Monetary Fund. But it is lukewarm on the idea of a joint euro zone finance minister and rejects any pooling of debt.

Four faces to watch in Merkel’s new German government

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz

Merkel’s new vice chancellor, centre-left Social Democrat Scholz takes over the purse strings held for eight years by steely conservative Wolfgang Schaeuble.

The sober and self-confident Scholz, who was Merkel’s labour minister during the 2008 financial crisis and then the mayor of prosperous Hamburg, is on the right of his party and an advocate of balanced budgets.

Scholz stresses his party’s “very clear pro-European position” and the need for consensus with other EU countries on euro zone reform, but his arrival doesn’t necessarily herald any major change of direction.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas

Germany’s new chief diplomat is a newcomer to foreign policy, but as justice minister was a high-profile figure in Merkel’s outgoing government. Maas is best known for pushing through a controversial law aimed at cracking down on hate speech on social networks.

He has been particularly outspoken in criticising the nationalist, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany, which is now the biggest opposition party.

Outgoing Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a fellow Social Democrat who over the past year led Germany’s response to tensions with Nato ally Turkey, says Maas will do an “excellent” job.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier

Altmaier, a conservative, is close to Merkel and has been her chief of staff since 2013. He takes over the ministry that oversees Germany’s trade relations and is in charge of managing the country’s switch from nuclear and coal to renewable energy.

He has served in a succession of party and government jobs as a loyal aide to Merkel, and has previous experience of managing energy policy from a stint as environment minister.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer

An often-awkward ally to Merkel, the leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union party becomes Germany’s top security official.

Seehofer – whose party is traditionally a touch further right than Merkel’s – was one of the chancellor’s most prominent critics during the 2015 migrant influx, though the pair have since buried the hatchet.

The outgoing Bavarian governor, who has previously served as federal health and agriculture minister, now takes on the task of trying to keep a lid on migrant arrivals. He has promised a “master plan” to speed up asylum procedures and increase deportations of rejected applicants.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse