More Merkel: The upshot of the German election

Marc Young
Yahoo News
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BERLIN -- People across crisis-weary Europe looked toward Germany on Sunday, as Chancellor Angela Merkel won re-election in a landslide. The victory cements her position as the most important leader in the European Union and the most powerful woman in the world.

Merkel’s popularity secured her conservative Christian Democrats their best result in 23 years (41.5 percent), as voters gave her credit for steering Germany away from the economic troubles affecting much of the rest of the continent.

“It was a strong vote to take responsibility in Germany, but also in Europe and the world,” the 59-year-old Merkel said at a press conference in Berlin on Monday.

Though she easily romped to a third term, Merkel will not be able to continue her center-right coalition of the past four years after her junior partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), failed to win seats in parliament for the first time ever. Once the kingmakers of post-war German politics, the FDP imploded as voters rejected the party’s unabashed free-market and pro-business ideology in the wake of the global financial crisis.

That means Merkel’s conservatives will have to tack leftward to attract either the center-left Social Democrats or environmentalist Greens into government.

Those developments, along with the rise of an upstart party skeptical toward Europe (more about that in a moment) were among the biggest surprises in an election campaign Merkel dominated from the start.

Her strong electoral mandate makes Germany’s chancellor central to resolving Europe’s economic crisis and a crucial partner for achieving President Barack Obama’s foreign policy aims.

Yahoo News takes a look at the most important ramifications of the German vote:

1. Angela Merkel is now Europe’s de facto boss. From alleviating the eurozone’s woes to hammering out a transatlantic free-trade deal, nothing important will get done without her. Obama is sure to have her number on the White House speed dial this morning.

2. Keenly aware of its troubled history, Germany has only reluctantly become the dominant political power in Europe. Merkel’s increased profile means Berlin is sure to have more global responsibility thrust upon it regardless of whether the German government wants it or not. After leaving close allies Britain and France in the lurch during their military intervention in Libya and recently rejecting a U.S. call for a strike in Syria, Germany will have a harder time trying to pretend it’s an oversized Switzerland.

3. Europe just became a little more German. The chancellor’s commanding re-election has also given her the political capital to take a more flexible approach toward solving Europe’s debt crisis. But in line with Merkel’s cautious nature, she probably won’t change course much. Assuming her conservatives form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, Germany might put a bit more emphasis on stimulating growth in Europe. Another Greek bailout may be in the offing, but don’t expect debt mutualization through Eurobonds. And her austerity driveso hated in countries from Greece to Spain is here to stay.

4. The election also raised the specter of growing anti-European sentiment in Germany. A populist upstart party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), only narrowly missed the five percent hurdle to win seats in parliament. The surprising result showed, however, that calls to ditch the euro, Europe’s single currency, can win German votes. Merkel now has four years to get the eurozone’s economic house in order. Otherwise, mainstream German politics could become decidedly more antagonistic toward the euro specifically and Europe in general. The euro-skeptical AfD will almost certainly do well in next year’s European Parliament election, ensuring its role as Germany’s political gadfly.

5. Finally, flipping the bird will not help get you elected in Germany. Peer Steinbrück’s ill-fated bid to oust Merkel will ultimately be remembered for its countless gaffes, including the Social Democrat sarcastically posing for a national magazine while making a vulgar gesture with his middle finger.