In spite of the obnoxious amount of rain, it is a great day in Berlin. After years of getting what could be called the silent treatment from government, homosexuals seem to have won the right to get married & adopt children. Yet the fact that it took this long is in itself confusing: over 80% of Germans support gay marriage, and this support did not appear over night, and -- especially for somebody used to American politics -- Merkel is frequently touted as one of the most progressive leaders the West has to offer (in spite of being the head of a christian conservative party). Yet if anybody should take the blame for not tackling this issue sooner it is her.
"For me and the constitution, it is about a woman and a man." Merkel said this, but she did not express this opinion years ago and later change her mind to support it, as some other world leaders have (like former US President Barack Obama), instead she said this today after voting against the bill which has opened the doors to a happy family for so many people. Yet without her, this change would not have been possible: had she not made her comments suggesting that she would allow a vote of conscience (rather than whipping her party to vote as a bloc) on the issue, gay marriage would likely not have been discussed in the Bundestag until after the elections at the earliest. So, if she was so opposed to the idea of changing the definition of marriage, why make those comments in the first place? The answer lies purely in election politics.
On June 17th, the Green party (usual coalition partners for the SPD, though occasional partner of the CDU in certain regions like Schleswig Holstein) announced that not only does it support gay marriage -- it would not enter into a coalition with any party that does not include gay marriage as part of the coalition platform. June 23rd saw the SPD follow suit with a similar promise not to enter a coalition without a guarantee for gay marriage. This was not a move simply to appease its potential coalition partner, but also because support for gay marriage presented the opportunity for the centrist Martin Schulz (the SPD's candidate for Chancellor and the only real contender against Merkel for the position) to finally differentiate himself from the mother of all centrists: Merkel. The following day, the liberal FDP (preferred coalition partner of the CDU) made the same promise.
After this point, the story of how the last week unfolded has two different versions:
Merkel The Master Tactician
One of the biggest reasons Merkel is on the path to becoming Germany's longest serving chancellor is that she has a knack for stealing her opponent's thunder, or, more literally, their platform. This makes it hard for SPD candidates to differentiate themselves from her while still appealing to the center (a problem which Schulz is also facing). So, when the other parties seemed to be mobilizing based on the gay rights issue, she took away their opportunity to campaign on it before the election. By saying she would not whip her party, she opened the clear path to legalization in parliament without giving her actual support. By allowing the vote this week, she took the issue out of the election and became the Chancellor who saw Germany legalize gay marriage (and could therefore take the credit for it). Yet she didn't want to lose support from her base, so she voted against the measure in spite of having cleared the path for it. Now Schulz can't campaign on a platform that says she or her party are homophobes, and her own base can't claim that she sold them out since she didn't vote in favor.
Merkel's Big Mistake
With all her potential coalition partners united on the issue, Merkel was under huge pressure, and tried to soften her stance with her comments in order to leave room for negotiation after the election. Schulz seized this chance to upend the status quo in parliament and force a vote by the end of the week, using Merkel's halfhearted remarks as a justification. Merkel now looks bad to her own base for opening the floodgates to a legalization of gay marriage, and was unable to prevent the bill from passing. By voting against it she alienates centrists who supported it and also cut herself off from being able to take credit as the Chancellor who legalized gay marriage. Rather than removing the narrative of gay marriage from the election, she has strengthened Schulz's image as someone who can get things done, even before he is elected Chancellor.
Its hard to tell which of these two narratives is true. Both? Neither? In the end, the election this fall will be affected by whichever narrative manages to convince more voters. For now, it may be best to simply celebrate that #EheFürAlle is now a reality.