The Chancellor Who Played with Fire

BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel should be happy nowadays: her party’s approval ratings aren’t bad, and her own are very good. She no longer has serious rivals within the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), while the left opposition is fragmented into four parties. Her response to the European crisis has prevailed – or at least that is the impression that she conveys, and that most Germans believe. So everything is fine and dandy, right?

Not so fast. Two issues could complicate Merkel’s re-election bid in the autumn of 2013. Domestically, her coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), is disintegrating. Even if the FDP survives the next election (which is by no means certain), the current coalition is unlikely to retain its parliamentary majority, leaving Merkel increasingly dependent on the Social Democrats (SPD). While this need not matter to her too much as long as she retains the chancellorship, in Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD’s leader, she faces – for the first time – an opponent whom she would underestimate at her peril.

But the real danger to Merkel is external: the European crisis. If she is unlucky, the crisis will come to a head at the start of the German election year, and all previous calculations could be moot, because, despite Germans’ frustration with Europe, the electorate would punish severely those who allowed Europe to fail.

The European Union’s economy is sliding into a severe and, in all likelihood, long-lasting recession, largely self-inflicted. While Germany is still trying to banish the specter of hyperinflation with strict eurozone austerity measures, the EU crisis countries are facing a real threat of deflation, with potentially disastrous consequences. It is only a question of time – no longer very much time – before economic destabilization gives rise to political instability.