There is a well-known German slogan about the fate of those seeking re-election these days: ‘wer regiert, verliert.’ An American translation − voters are restless, rebellious, and ready to blame and replace those in office for their troubles.

Angela Merkel may be comfortably coasting along as a most popular chancellor, but both her party and her coalition government are not getting any advantages. The May 13 elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) not only strengthened the hold of the Social Democrats and the Greens on Germany’s largest state. The results were also the worst ever for Merkel’s party and represented its eleventh consecutive loss in regional elections since the last national elections in 2009. The FDP, Merkel’s coalition partner in Berlin, was able to secure a result better than had been expected, but that does not help Merkel in Berlin. Indeed, the national polls for the FDP remain low, despite good results in NRW and a week ago in Schleswig-Holstein (SH). However, in both those elections, the key to the FDP success was a persuasive candidate − not necessarily a persuasive program. Just what the FDP stands for has become a serious question for the party. As it jockeys for position in the future, it will need to generate a clearer profile.

Despite Merkel’s personal popularity, the Chancellor’s party now has less than half a million members − with more potential voters staying away from the polls. The turnout in NRW was as low as it was in SH – a mere 60 percent. These low numbers could be partly to blame for the recent beating taken by Merkel’s party. However, when one further considers that NRW represents the fourth consecutive success of the upstart Pirate Party in gaining access to a regional parliament − gaining nearly as many votes as the FDP − there are ample signs of trouble for the Chancellor as she prepares for the national elections in the fall of 2013.

Of course, Merkel does have options. Failure to renew a coalition with the FDP could point in the direction of a renewed coalition with the Social Democrats, assuming that they cannot secure enough of a margin to forge a government with the Greens. To make such a coalition viable, she also has to be sure that the Bavarian sister party − CSU − will go along with that arrangement again. In the meantime, the SPD will have to sort out who is going to lead its own campaign next year − an issue that will test the coherence of the party.

The fact that many coalitions are fragile these days might argue that the tough times require a more stable majority. With the Chancellor continuing to face an uphill battle in the upper chamber − the Bundesrat, where her coalition with the FDP does not hold a majority − this could signal yet another reason to explore the option of a coalition with the SPD next year. A return to the Grand Coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD could provide Germany with the stable majority it needs to navigate the enhanced leadership position it has acquired in Europe.

On the other hand, the results the FDP scored in these past two elections have prompted some to argue that the coalition with Merkel is not the only option for the Liberals, thus implying that perhaps a flirt with Social Democrats might be possible. That might appear implausible given the implacable conflicts with the Greens, the third party involved if such a coalition were to occur − known as the traffic light model (red, green, and yellow). With such an array of options at hand, there is little doubt that Germany’s political landscape will look different come November of next year.

The next fifteen months before the scheduled national elections allow for anything to happen, as well as for much posturing on all sides of the political spectrum. The next scheduled regional elections are in early 2013 in Lower Saxony, which is governed by a CDU-FDP coalition. Should that be replaced by still another “red-green” coalition, Chancellor Merkel would be severely handicapped during a tough campaign battle.

Merkel’s majority beyond Germany has also recently been further constrained by the election of Socialist party leader Francois Hollande as France’s president. Without knowing what the parameters of the French National Assembly will look before June, it is difficult to measure how much running space Hollande will have in dealing with Merkel over the economic battles going on in Europe. Adding to this instability is the ongoing unpredictability in Athens for the EU and the euro. Should Greece leave the euro system − an increasingly likely scenario − concerns about the viability of the common currency will increase, especially in the markets.

While many challenge her policies, Merkel remains the dominant figure on the EU stage. With the next chapter of the euro about to unfold, the Chancellor continues to represent for most Germans the primary protector of their economic future. Merkel’s future will be shaped by her ability to keep her own majority intact.

For now, Angela Merkel enjoys the confidence of the majority of Germans for the way she has handled multiple crises. There is no one in her party who can or wishes to seriously challenge her as she gears up for a run at a third term as chancellor. However, she is challenged by the need to decipher how she can stop the political bleeding of her party and her coalition options from melting further. The strength of the Chancellor will rest on keeping her options open and viable. The challenge to her competitors is to limit those options. The last two Sunday elections have clearly sharpened the battle front.

Further analysis on this topic:

Nach den Landtagswahlen in Schleswig-Holstein und Nordrhein-Westfalen: Was bedeuten die Ergebnisse für die Bundespolitik?, von Dieter Roth

Implications of the 2012 Election Results in North Rhine-Westphalia for the German Party System and the 2013 National Elections, by Dieter Dettke