Germany's Merkel makes wobbly start to 2nd term

AP News
Posted: Nov 30, 2009 6:10 AM

Chancellor Angela Merkel's new government was supposed to be a harmonious alliance that would focus energetically on reviving Europe's biggest economy.

So far, it hasn't worked that way. A month into her second term, Merkel has presided over public squabbling on tax plans, a spat rooted in World War II history, and a hasty Cabinet reshuffle triggered by fallout from an airstrike in Afghanistan.

"This isn't a stumbling start, it is a belly flop," the deputy editor of the mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag newspaper, Michael Backhaus, wrote this week.

Things looked rosy for the conservative Merkel after an election victory in September and for her preferred alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats. That ended her awkward four-year "grand coalition" with center-left rivals.

The center-right allies quickly concluded a coalition deal whose most eye-catching feature was a vague plan to cut and reform income tax starting in 2011, aimed at stimulating the economy.

"The government is counting on growth to lead Germany to new strength," Merkel proclaimed.

Trouble is, her coalition can't agree what it agreed on. The Free Democrats insist major tax reform is coming; Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a conservative veteran, says there isn't enough money for a "fundamentally new tax system."

State governors in Merkel's party, fearful for their budgets, are reluctant to approve in parliament's upper house even a more modest package for 2010 that would adjust corporate tax rules, cut tax on hotel stays and increase child benefits.

The Free Democrats' leader, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, insists that the government's tax plans are "the best possible recipe against the economic crisis."

The new government "can declare political bankruptcy if Chancellor Merkel and Vice Chancellor Westerwelle don't succeed in implementing the tax cuts planned for 2010," Backhaus wrote, noting that they were "a central election pledge."

The wobbly start "is a combination of a bad and sloppy coalition agreement, a certain degree of amateurishness and bad luck," Michael Spreng, an adviser to a conservative candidate in Germany's 2002 election, told ZDF television.

Opposition leaders say Merkel's sometimes hands-off style, which helped her appear above the fray when her previous government bickered, is past its sell-by date.

"Merkel has arrived at a dead end with her course of moderating, which avoids any clear decisions," said the Green party's Renate Kuenast.

A case in point: A flap over a planned center commemorating the fate of Germans expelled from Poland and elsewhere when borders were shifted after World War II.

Westerwelle says he won't accept a lawmaker from Merkel's Christian Democrats, Erika Steinbach, on a board overseeing the center; Steinbach is deeply distrusted in neighboring Poland.

That has irked conservatives, with lawmaker Hans-Peter Uhl telling the weekly Der Spiegel that "Westerwelle must ask himself seriously whether he is the foreign minister of Germany or Poland."

Merkel hasn't yet intervened.

Her troubles came to a head last week when it emerged that a German military report on a Sept. 4 airstrike in Afghanistan, which reportedly indicated civilians were killed was never seen by then-Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung. He insisted for days there was no evidence of civilian deaths.

Jung's successor swiftly removed the military's chief of staff. Jung tried to cling to his new post as labor minister, insisting that he "correctly informed both the public and parliament about what I knew."

However, his position became untenable after he said he heard of the report's existence from the military a month later and authorized its transfer to NATO without finding out about its contents.

Jung, long considered a weak performer, finally quit after a day _ leaving Merkel to face accusations of dithering for failing to remove him earlier.

Merkel's center-left predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, had a famously rocky start and survived to win re-election. But commentators say Merkel's government needs to get its act together.

"The starting credit of the new government has been used up _ and not just because of Franz Josef Jung," the Welt am Sonntag newspaper wrote.