First appeared at Bloomberg

A contentious issue that wasn’t part of the German election campaign has now taken center stage: gay marriage. Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose Christian Democratic Union party has always opposed it on religious grounds, has acted deftly to defuse the crisis. At the risk of angering some of her conservative voter base, she’s letting same-sex marriage get through parliament as soon as this week.

The CDU enjoys a big poll lead over all other parties. Given a booming economy and a widespread perception that Merkel has successfully managed the refugee crisis, few lines of attack are available to her rivals. As large pride parades rolled through German cities in late June, they pounced. All three potential members of the CDU’s ruling coalition after the September election — the Greens, the pro-business Free Democrats and the Social Democrats (SPD) — have announced that they wouldn’t rule with Merkel’s party unless it agreed to allow “marriage for all,” as the policy is known in Germany.

Gay couples have gained the right to marry in 11 European Union countries; two more countries, Estonia and Malta, recognize the unions if they are sealed elsewhere. Germany, however, is among the 10 EU nations that only recognize “partnerships” between people of the same sex. The legal consequences of a “life partnership” are almost the same as for marriage, but not quite: For example, a same-sex couple is not allowed to adopt children; there are also dozens of less significant differences. Polls have long shown that an overwhelming majority of Germans support full equality. But CDU politicians have still hesitated. As recently as 2012, with polls already in favor of gay marriage, Merkel wasn’t even in favor of giving same-sex partnerships the same tax status as married couples, because the German constitution — while not directly defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, as in seven East European EU members — links the notion of marriage and family.

But in 2017, as soon as rivals found a promising campaign topic, Merkel deftly wrong-footed them.

She carefully discussed the matter with Horst Seehofer, the conservative leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, which has to win elections in a predominantly Catholic part of the country. Then she talked it over with a close circle of party colleagues. Finally, she went public with a measured response to the other parties’ demands. At an event organized by the women’s magazine Brigitte on Monday night, she recalled meeting a lesbian couple in her constituency that was taking good care of eight foster children. She said she realized she could no longer argue against gay marriage on the grounds of children’s health and well-being. But she avoided directly endorsing “marriage for all,” saying it was a personal matter, a matter of conscience.

This cautious formula was fine with Seehofer, and it allowed Merkel to declare that CDU legislators were free to vote their conscience on the subject. Resistance continues, with Guenter Krings, a senior CDU member, arguing that a constitutional amendment would be necessary to change the definition of marriage and that the life partnership status did not discriminate against gay couples. But in practical terms, Merkel’s refusal to enforce party discipline means that the marriage equality bill, promptly put on the parliament’s agenda for Friday by leftist parties, will likely pass.

Merkel has spent most of the campaign playing to her conservative base, trying to keep it from defecting to the populist Alternative for Germany party. Unlike in the run-up to the previous election, she has brought the national flag into the campaign and stressed patriotism as a key value. She’s also toughened her stance on immigration and backed a ban on Muslim full-face covering for women. The tactics have worked, depressing AfD performance in the polls. But at heart, Merkel is more of a progressive than a compassionate conservative. At key moments, she has made decisions her base has never fully accepted, vowing to phase out nuclear energy, ending conscription and letting in more than a million refugees. On the gay marriage issue, she has clearly made up her mind, too, skilfully picking a moment for the controversial move when it could be dressed up in the robes of political expediency.

As he criticized Merkel during a recent party event, Martin Schulz, the SPD candidate for the chancellorship, called the CDU “a party devoid of content.” He was wrong: The CDU’s conservative, Christian, mildly nationalistic credentials are real. Merkel, however, has played a somewhat subversive role in her 17 years of party leadership. A proven winner, she has subtly persuaded the conservative membership to come along on major issues with the privileges of government as a carrot. 

This will be her lasting legacy, and if the Friday vote goes as expected, the recognition of gay marriage in Germany will be part of it: The opposition parties’ role will soon be forgotten. 

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