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Then there's the minefield of health-care reform. Ministers are divided over how to reform Germany's complex health system and rein in spiraling medical costs. The upstart 36-year-old Health Minister Philipp Rösler (FDP) thinks he's come up with a solution to crack the problem: a flat-rate premium for health-care contributions so all Germans pay the same, regardless of income. But colleagues from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's sister party and the third partner in the coalition, have slammed the plan, saying it is not "socially fair and not financeable."
Merkel has mostly tried to steer clear of confrontation by adopting a presidential style of leadership. To stop the infighting over health care she appointed a government commission to look into the matter. But her approval ratings are slipping. A poll by the TNS Emnid Institute on Feb. 17 found 51% of Germans were satisfied with her work, down from 61% the month before. With the new government "arguing more than the old coalition government," says Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa Polling Institute, "Angela Merkel has to be careful that she doesn't lose her voters and she has to tell her coalition partners to get back in line."
The government's bickering is set against the backdrop of the ongoing economic crisis, which remains the key issue for voters. Germany may be officially out of recession but Europe's biggest economy is struggling to get back on its feet. Unemployment is creeping up and public finances are deteriorating. Germany's budget deficit reached 3.3% of GDP in 2009 and is forecast to rise to more than 5% of GDP this year far more than the 3% limit set by European Union rules. Add in worries that Berlin could end up bailing Greece out of its own financial predicament (so far Merkel's response to calls for help has been a firm nein, though she has proposed a new European Monetary Fund that could help in the future) and you can understand why Germans are disgruntled.
Merkel's spokesman, Ulrich Wilhelm, says voters are missing the big picture. "It certainly was not the best start," Wilhelm tells TIME. "It'll take time for the parties to come together." Despite the differences, it's crucial to "look at the facts." The government has passed "important legislation regarding tax incentives for businesses, agreeing on the 2010 budget and giving the green light for the biggest investment in research and technology."
As if to prove the show must go on, Merkel hosted another meeting of her coalition partners in Berlin late last month. Westerwelle called the talks "constructive," but just 24 hours later, repeated his controversial rant against the welfare state and said that he'd provoked a "necessary debate." In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Merkel accused Westerwelle of repeating the obvious. Of course those who work should get more than those who don't work, the Chancellor said. The message: I'm in charge.
Merkel is indeed in the stronger position. The FDP won a record 14.6% of the vote in last September's election, but it was never going to join up with the left-of-center Social Democratic party. That means there is no real alternative to the current coalition. But Merkel's lack of authority remains worrying. "Angela Merkel's strategy is to calm things down her coping style is emotional and palliative," says Thomas Kliche, a political psychologist at the University of Hamburg. The problem is, "stagnation doesn't overcome crisis."