Chancellor Merkel’s ‘victory’ in the Bundestag on Feb 27 may be an illustration of the increasingly challenging task of managing majorities in today’s multi-level political chess game.

Merkel needed a majority to approve the next support package for Greece and she got it − but at a cost.  Her own governing coalition majority did not come together, as many in the three-way party coalition voted not to support the proposal. Merkel was able to gain a majority with the help of the opposition Social Democrats and the Greens. However, the uncertainty about the success of this next chapter in bailing out the Greeks is taking a toll on Germany’s base of support for not only Greece but also for Europe. Opinion polls report a majority of Germans as being against the continued payments being made to the Greeks, which is also reflected in widespread media criticism and punditry. Merkel continues to make the case for the euro by linking it to the case for Europe, yet skepticism about that linkage is growing, largely fed by declining expectations that Greece is capable of the reforms needed to make the payments worthwhile.

During the G20 meeting in Mexico, Germany was also told in no uncertain terms by the International Monetary Fund and its counterparts that more money was needed to shore up the danger of further fiscal collapse in Europe.  Finance Minister Schäuble left the Mexico meeting facing not only the vote in the Bundestag, but also more challenges in Brussels in the ongoing debate in the euro drama.

Amidst these many negotiations, Chancellor Merkel is repeatedly confronted with the expectations that Germany take the lead in building an effective firewall in Europe against further threats to an international financial system in which multiple players have a stake. The caution with which Germany has been approaching this challenge is as much a reflection of its domestic debate as of the difficulty of getting a consensus in Europe, let alone at the level of the G20.

Managing majorities in this volatile climate requires a constant recalibration in measuring success.  Clearly Chancellor Merkel would have preferred to have her own coalition delivering the majority she wanted to pass the package on Greece. But the fact that she did not need it is an indication of how the fault lines among the political parties in the Bundestag are moving. With national elections scheduled for the fall of 2013, the positioning of political parties toward possible coalition governments is already in motion. The fact that the Social Democrats and the Greens supported Merkel’s package was based not on their agreement with Merkel’s policies, but more on their support for putting more effort on keeping the euro zone intact. In fact, the opposition is arguing that Merkel has not been honest with the German public about what is going to be really needed if the euro is to remain sustainable.  Yet there is also a need to be cautious about criticizing the Chancellor too much, particularly in light of the widespread unease in Germany with the bail out process and the support Chancellor Merkel has enjoyed for her tough positions.  While one can assume for now that the Social Democrats and the Greens would like to form a coalition together next year after the national elections, there is no certain way of knowing what combination of political parties will result in a coalition. Managing the next eighteen months with the election in mind will be a challenge for all of the political actors in Berlin.

Within the larger environment of the European Union, Germany has been the object of much criticism, not only in Greece, but in an increasing number of the EU member states. Managing majorities in Brussels has been an equally difficult task for Merkel. It is a job which will only become more difficult for the Chancellor if President Sarkozy loses his bid for re-election in the coming weeks, thereby leaving Merkel with a potential new partner in Paris in the person of Socialist leader Francois Hollande. In that scenario, the political chess game becomes more unpredictable in Brussels.

Of course, the management of sustainable governing majorities in Athens will be of critical importance if Greece is to aspire to maintaining its membership in the euro − a prospect some of Chancellor Merkel’s own cabinet members and party colleagues see increasingly unlikely. As governments in Rome, Madrid, and Lisbon also struggle with their challenges, the ability to maintain political support for painful choices and decisions will be tested severely in the coming months.

Managing majorities at multiple levels will be like the proverbial herding of cats in the coming months − complicated by elections, markets movements and the unpredictable developments involving political leaders looking for options and opportunities. Throw on top of that mix the fact that all of those leaders are dealing with uncharted waters and few reliable maps to help navigate them. All of that underlines how important the talents, and indeed the instincts, of individuals in key positions of influence can be −for better and sometimes for worse. At the moment, Angela Merkel has chief management responsibilities not only in Germany but also in Brussels. As demonstrated  by the vote in the Bundestag on Feb 27, she is managing enough of a majority to get her agenda through.  She has also been successful in Brussels where the web is even more elaborate. The chess game in both towns will only get more complicated in the weeks and months to come.

Merkel is going to rack up a lot of criticism along the way. That comes with the turf she is occupying and something she is by now well used to. Whatever decisions and choices she makes for Germany, it will require managing majorities to sustain them. For the past several years she has be able to accomplish that, including getting re-elected in the process in 2009. However, there is no such thing as tenure in political life. You have it only as long as you can manage it.