(German Chancellor Angela Merkel promises a more rapid shift to renewable energy sources during a speech in the Bundestag lower house of parliament on March 17)
The consensus view in Germany is that Angela Merkel’s abrupt reversal on nuclear energy after Fukushima was a transparent ploy to shore up support in an important state election in Baden-Wuerttemberg. If indeed that was her intention (she denies any political motive) then she miscalculated horribly.
Her party was ousted from government in B-W on Sunday after running the prosperous southern region for 58 straight years. But what if Merkel was really thinking longer-term — ie beyond the state vote to the next federal election in 2013?
After the Japan catastrophe she may well have realised that her chances of getting elected to a third term were next-to-nil if she didn’t pivot quickly on nuclear.
There are two good reasons why that is probably a safe assumption. First is the extent of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany. A recent poll for Stern magazine showed nearly two in three Germans would like to see the country’s 17 nuclear power plants shut down within 5 years.
The nuclear issue was the decisive factor in the B-W election. And you can bet it will play an important role in the next national vote — even if it is 2-1/2 years away.
The second reason why the reversal looks like a good strategic decision from a political point of view is the dire state of Merkel’s junior partner in government — the Free Democrats.
It was the strength of the FDP which vaulted her to a second term in September 2009. But now it looks like their weakness could be her undoing in 2013. Merkel probably needs the FDP to score at least 10 percent in the next vote to give her a chance of renewing her “black-yellow” coalition. Right now the FDP is hovering at a meagre 5 percent and it is difficult to see how they double that anytime soon.
The nuclear shift widens Merkel’s options in one fell swoop. Suddenly the issue that made a coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Greens unthinkable at the federal level has vanished. Her party set a precedent by hooking up with the Greens in the city-state of Hamburg in 2008. Now she has more than two years to lay the foundations for a similar partnership in Berlin. By then voters may see Merkel’s nuclear U-turn in a different light. And only then will it be truly clear if it was a huge political mistake, as the Baden-Wuerttemberg vote suggests, or a prescient strategic coup.