EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

Recently, a landmark decision was passed in Germany, positioning the country in line with Norway, France, Netherlands, and other European nations, which have already approved legislation in favor of same-sex marriage. Although Merkel personally voted against, the Chancellor paved the way for legalizing same-sex marriage by calling for a ‘vote of conscience’. This has allowed the members of her ruling conservative bloc to vote according to their convictions rather than toeing party line. As a result, German lawmakers have voted by a wide margin to legalize same-sex marriage, making it possible for homosexual couples to enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples: i.e. they are granted full marital rights and the right to adopt children. However, why did the vote come about so suddenly, and why is this important now, especially ahead of the September general election?

Following the vote, Merkel said she believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, though also adding that the new reform could increase social cohesion and peace in Germany. The issue of same-sex marriage was already put forth during her 2013 election campaign, but Merkel has admittedly stated that her opposition to same-sex marriage, which she has built on the grounds of children’s welfare, has been a rather tough battle for her. Although she has been resistant towards the matter for many years, the chancellor acknowledged that her efforts have been faced with numerous difficulties, mainly due to the growing public support for marriage equality in Germany.

Despite her opposition vote being lost, Merkel has managed to earn the contentment of the conservative members, while keeping the progressive voters happy. Legalizing same-sex marriage will, therefore, most likely come to her advantage as she seeks a fourth term in the upcoming German federal election.

Regardless of her vote, Merkel will go down in history as the chancellor who made same-sex marriage possible, amongst her numerous other merits and accomplishments. Merkel has resolved an issue that was at the heart of the German public, without actually having to show her support to the cause of “Ehe für alle” or “marriage for everyone,” and without having to invest any significant political capital in it. By voting against, she succeeded in appealing to the conservative members of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, yet by allowing a vote of conscience, she also paved the way for her opposition to pass a reform that is popular with the German voters, thus reaffirming the public of her reputation as a liberal hero.

However, such shrewd parliamentary maneuvering behind the legislation amply illustrates why Merkel has maintained power for more than a decade. Over nearly 12 years of ruling, Merkel has been holding a relentlessly conservative stance towards issues of public opinion. Despite years of political deadlock, only a week sufficed to pass a bill which represented a largely contentious issue on the election table.

Nonetheless, Merkel’s masterfully calibrated shift resembles a rather reoccurring pattern in her long-lasting political governance. Merkel has proved her ability to shift positions from the very beginning.

In 2005, she abandoned promises of far-reaching economic reforms in Germany, and then subsequently ended military conscription and shutdown Germany’s nuclear power following the Fukushima reactor disaster in 2011. Although, her policies have not always been wholeheartedly supported in the conservative ranks, these shifts have eventually stripped her rivals of rallying themes, and allowed the CDU to seize the middle ground in politics.

For the German political left, which has fought to bring the bill before parliament for years, the same-sex marriage bill has marked a historic victory. Merkel’s center-left challenger Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), has made a pledge to legalize same-sex marriage in SPD’s election manifesto. By calling for a vote on the last day of the outgoing parliament, Schulz has attempted to regain the initiative and seize the limelight on the topic before the September vote. However, that has allowed Merkel to defuse the issue, as the bill was one of the last measures to pass through the parliament before Germany’s general election.

By clearing the way for same-sex marriage, Merkel now has one concern less to worry about. As the vote took place during the parliament’s last session before the summer recess, the vote on a 4-years-old bill carries little immediate political risk. If opened earlier, the vote might have taken its toll on Merkel’s coalition government.

If Merkel is to win a majority in the upcoming election, she will most likely seek a coalition with parties supportive of same-sex marriage. In fact, the Social Democrats, Free Democrats, and the Greens have already indicated that legalizing same-sex marriage would have been a critical condition for joining any future coalition with the conservatives.

It may arguably seem clear why Merkel has been resistant towards a vote on same-sex marriage until now, and why the snap vote has caught her rather off-guard. Largely based on their Christian tenets, the CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union, have long hesitated to put the issue of equal marriage on the table, until the SPD seized the initiative before the summer recess, and demanded that the vote should be put forth immediately. By opting for a vote of conscience, Merkel has allowed her lawmakers to have a free vote on same-sex marriage. This has in effect provided her with an opportunity to deliver on policy without actually supporting its substance, and thus avoiding a potential coalition breakdown with the center-left Social Democrats. Concerning the overwhelming popular support for same-sex marriage, by allowing a snap vote, she has also deprived her rivals of another dividing issue, which could have become crucial during the upcoming federal election. As Manfred Guellner, head of Germany’s Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis, said, “It’s unclear whether she intended this, but it certainly won’t harm her. On the contrary, the topic will no longer bother Merkel during the election campaign because it will be gone.” This reveals that the timing of the vote was particularly important. By the time the federal election comes around, the issue of same-sex marriage will likely not represent a concern for the voters anymore.

Elli Hoai Anh Le

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