LONDON — She’s once, twice, three times a chancellor: Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female leader, was sworn in Tuesday for her third term, underlining her dominance on the political scene in Europe’s biggest economy.
Merkel, 59, returns to power at a time when the region has yet to get back on its feet fully from its still-unresolved debt crisis, and as Germany’s relations with the United States continue to suffer from the fallout over revelations that American spies tapped her phone and collected electronic data on ordinary Germans.
Her confirmation as chancellor in a vote by lawmakers in the Bundestag on Tuesday was virtually assured after her Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, came in first place by a wide margin when Germans went to the polls in September. But the party fell just short of a majority of seats in the Bundestag, touching off weeks of negotiation with other groups to form a government.
Merkel will preside over a “grand coalition” uniting the conservative CDU with its archrival, the center-left Social Democrats, who finished second in the election. The two parties agreed on an agenda that should see a continuation of Merkel’s tax-friendly policies tempered by some concessions to the Social Democrats, including Germany’s first national minimum wage and some pension increases.
As one of Europe’s most powerful leaders, Merkel is unlikely to deviate from Berlin’s approach so far to the low-boil euro debt crisis: a fierce insistence on austerity in financially troubled countries, many of whose residents blame Germany for inflicting economic misery on them. The current finance minister, the feisty Wolfgang Schaeuble, will remain in his post.
The new government will also include Germany’s first female defense secretary, Ursula von der Leyen. The promotion for the former labor minister is widely regarded as a sign that Merkel has picked her out as a potential successor.
But it’s not as if Merkel has spoken of — or even hinted at — retirement. If she serves out this new term, until 2017, she will have occupied the chancellor’s office for 12 years and worked with three American presidents. That would eclipse the record of the other formidable female European leader to whom Merkel is sometimes compared, the late Margaret Thatcher, who also won three elections in Britain and served as its prime minister for 11 years.
Thatcher was toppled by members of her own Conservative Party, who had grown concerned over her deepening unpopularity in the country at large. Merkel, by contrast, regularly polls as Germany’s most popular national politician.
“I wouldn’t confuse coalition politics and the amount of time it took to negotiate this government with the level of her popularity and support in the country,” said Philip Murphy, who served as U.S. ambassador to Berlin from 2009 until earlier this year. “At least at this moment on the stage there’s no one to rival her.”
She was elected chancellor Tuesday by a 462-150 vote in the Bundestag. Conspicuously absent from the chamber were lawmakers from the junior party in her last government, the business-friendly Free Democrats, who, in a major upset, failed in September to win the minimum number of votes required to re-enter parliament.
“I accept the election result and thank you for your trust,” a smiling Merkel said.
This is her second grand coalition government; the first, from 2005 to 2009, proved to be a disaster for the Social Democrats, who were punished at the polls for becoming too closely identified with Merkel’s CDU. During coalition negotiations this time, leaders of the Social Democrats were determined to stamp the joint agenda with as much of their welfare-oriented emphasis as possible.
Following tradition, Merkel will make the first foreign trip of her new term almost immediately, on Wednesday, to Paris, to symbolize French and German amity after two world wars on opposing sides.
Whether relations with Washington can be quickly repaired, however, is another matter. The East German-raised Merkel, long an admirer of the U.S. and its freedoms, was outraged by leaked documents showing that American intelligence agents had tapped her phone.
The anger has spilled into talks between the U.S. and the European Union on a free-trade pact. Cooperation between American and German intelligence has also reportedly suffered.
“It’s a serious bump on the road — let there be no doubt about it,” Murphy said. But “we will get through this. There’s too much at stake. There’s too much history. The Germany-U.S. relationship will survive.”
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