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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Consolidating A Wavering Coalition

Angela Merkel, soon to be the first woman to serve as chancellor of Germany, stands in striking contrast with the staid procession of men who have run the country -- East, West or rejoined -- since World War II, and not only because of her sex. Merkel, a 51-year-old pastor's daughter from behind the Berlin Wall, rose through the ranks of the male-dominated and traditionally Catholic Christian Democratic Union through competence and hard work, not the more common political routes of populism or party hackery. But there is no time to celebrate, as Merkel herself told disappointed supporters. "I am in a good mood," she said, "but I know that there is a lot of work ahead of us."

More precisely, there is a lot of hard work ahead of her. Voters wary of her more radical ideas gave Merkel only four more seats in the Sept. 18 elections than Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's socialists, forcing the two main parties to settle for what is quaintly known as a "grand coalition." Getting Schröder to step aside cost Merkel half the seats in her government, including foreign affairs, finance, labor and justice. Merkel will have to cede some of the more dubious planks in her platform of labor and social reforms for which German voters clearly withheld their mandate.

That does not necessarily mean there will be no reform: Germany's economic plight is sufficiently devastating for the rivals in the coalition to join forces on simplifying the income tax system and making labor markets more flexible. Schröder called early elections precisely because he felt stymied in his efforts to push needed reforms through the parliament, so at the very least the grand coalition should quickly do what he could not.

The two parties are also in broad agreement on foreign affairs -- with the notable exception of the question of Turkey's membership in the European Union, an issue on which a Social Democratic Party foreign minister should override Merkel's opposition. The danger is that if the major parties begin sensing any weakness at the top, they will promptly draw a bead on the next election and start competing over who demands the least sacrifice of the German people. That will be the true test of Merkel's leadership.

This comment first ran as an editorial in The New York Times.