By Frank Zeller — GERMAN leader Angela Merkel on Friday rallied her party in her first election year speech as she rides high in the polls but is being dragged down by a weak coalition partner. Later this month a bellwether state election will be held in Lower Saxony - a key political test before a national vote in September in which the conservative chancellor will seek a third four-year term.
Hurling herself into the campaign year, Merkel kicked off a two-day party meeting in the battleground state Lower Saxony, centred on the themes of jobs and the still-humming economy. "We'll do this, we'll make it, we'll manage it," she told her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) ahead of the January 20 election in the state, speaking in the North Sea port city of Wilhelmshaven.
Merkel also said Germany must slash its debt, arguing that "we must work hard so that the prosperity of our children and grandchildren will be just as good or better." The chancellor is popular at home for her economic stewardship and handling of the eurozone crisis, and an ARD TV survey on Friday put support for the CDU at a five-year high of 41 per cent.
Her big headache, however, are her junior coalition partners the Free Democratic Party (FDP) whose ratings have slid into the death zone below 5 per cent, the cutoff mark for re-entry into parliament. Because Germany's ruling CDU-FDP constellation is mirrored in Lower Saxony, all eyes are now on the north-western state governed by Merkel's protege, Scottish-German born premier David McAllister.
Merkel will bring her star power into play with eight campaign speeches in the state ahead of the poll, while McAllister has gone out of his way to try to prop up the embattled FDP. The FDP's leader, Vietnam-born Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Philipp Roesler, has drawn heavy fire from within his pro-business party over its dismal ratings.
At an annual FDP meeting today, he will defend his claim to stay at the helm despite the decline of a party which scored almost 15 per cent in 2009 polls and has five ministers in Merkel's cabinet.
If Roesler's party crashes out in his home state of Lower Saxony, ending the decade-old CDU-FDP government there, the political days of the party leader will also be numbered, most observers agree.
While Lower Saxony spells danger for Merkel's government, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) smells an opportunity to gain the initiative in the 2013 campaign year.
The SPD's top candidate Peer Steinbrueck badly needs to build momentum after he stumbled at the starting line with a controversy over more than 1 million euros he accepted in speaking fees. The former finance minister and flagbearer of blue-collar Germany drew fire this week for poor political judgement when he said the chancellor's 300,000-euro (395,000- dollar) a year salary was too low.
Steinbrueck also hopes to retake power together with the Greens, the coalition that ruled Germany from 1998 to 2005 under chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. If the FDP has limped along in the polls, the Greens have been in the ascendancy, polling up to 15 per cent nationally and winning a string of elections in key states and cities. The Greens, rooted in the 1970s environmental and peace movements, are now seen as quasi mainstream. Their anti-nuclear stance became state policy with Merkel's 2011 decision to phase out of atomic power.
Now regarded as political kingmakers, the Greens may help the SPD wrest back power in populous Lower Saxony, an outcome predicted by a string of opinion polls over the past year.
Faced with the threat of a weak FDP, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) have flirted with a once-unthinkable idea - ruling Germany with the Greens.
Although many still see such an odd couple as a long shot, speculation that it could happen was again fuelled on Thursday by comments CSU leader Horst Seehofer made to the Bild daily.
"In case the FDP won't be there after the elections, the Union will have to talk to other parties," he said. "A few years ago politicians would still have said, 'We rule this out.' That I won't do. We owe that much to the voters."