BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel has dominated German politics for over a decade thanks to a combination of flexibility, tactical savvy and luck — and she looks likely to benefit from Germany's legalization of gay marriage as she seeks a fourth term in September.
Those qualities helped enable parliament's lightning-fast vote Friday to legalize gay marriage. Though Merkel herself probably didn't intend for it to happen so quickly and voted against the measure, it dispatched the issue before election campaigning really started.
The chancellor, a longtime though apparently lukewarm skeptic on same-sex marriage, set the ball rolling Monday for the stunningly fast decision by declaring the issue a matter of "conscience." That meant her conservative lawmakers wouldn't have to follow a party line and could vote however they wanted.
Her center-left challenger in Germany's Sept. 24 election, Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats, took the chance to seize the limelight and force a long-standing demand though the outgoing parliament on its last day. The Social Democrats have been struggling to dent Merkel's double-digit poll lead.
But that allowed Merkel to defuse an awkward issue — gay marriage is popular with German voters — without actually nailing her colors to the cause of "marriage for everybody," which could have annoyed her conservative base.
In nearly 12 years in power, Merkel has been relentless in throwing conservative orthodoxy overboard as public opinion evolves. She now has one issue fewer to worry about without having invested significant political capital.
Same-sex couples in Germany have been able to enter civil partnerships since a center-left government allowed that in 2001. While other Western European countries since legalized full marriage, there was little movement in Germany, largely due to resistance from Merkel's conservative Union bloc.
Merkel has showed an ability to shift positions from the start. In 2005, after barely squeaking through an election she was expected to win easily, she dropped talk of far-reaching economic reforms at home.
Since then, she has dropped military conscription, introduced benefits encouraging fathers to look after their young children and abruptly accelerated the shutdown of Germany's nuclear power plants following Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011.
Those switches, not always popular in conservative ranks, have deprived rivals on the left of rallying themes and allowed Merkel's party to occupy center ground.
She has also distanced herself from U.S. President Donald Trump, who is very unpopular in Germany, by suggesting that Europe can no longer entirely rely on the U.S. — cutting off another potential line of attack for her rivals.
The 62-year-old chancellor, a Protestant pastor's daughter, has never looked comfortable discussing gay marriage and has said relatively little about the matter.
Merkel voted Friday against legalizing gay marriage but said she's fine with full adoption rights for same-sex couples. She said she believes the German constitution views marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Recent polls show large majorities in Germany in favor of legalizing gay marriage. All three of Merkel's potential coalition partners in the next government were demanding it: Schulz's Social Democrats, who are her current partners in an awkward "grand coalition" of rivals; the pro-business but socially liberal Free Democrats; and the traditionally left-leaning Greens.
Merkel faced the prospect of having to commit her conservatives to gay marriage to get a coalition deal this fall. With only a quarter of her caucus backing its legalization Friday, that might have been tough.
On Monday, at a discussion organized by the women's magazine Brigitte, Merkel was challenged by a man asking "When can I call my boyfriend my husband?"
She replied that she preferred to view it as a "decision of conscience rather than me pushing something through by majority vote." She added that "the decision will have to be made some time."
That signaled Merkel was backing off the conservatives' long-standing refusal to budge.
Schulz leapt on the about-turn and pushed for a vote this week on a nearly four-year-old bill. Due to timing, that carried little immediate political risk. An open rift earlier might have brought down Merkel's coalition government, but Friday was the outgoing parliament's last session before the September vote.
In fact, the vote Friday offered both sides an opportunity to highlight their differences after four fractious years of governing together. Schulz joined two left-leaning opposition parties to force Friday's vote, so the conservatives can hope to scare voters with the notion of a left-wing government including the Left Party, which has communist roots.
The nationalist Alternative for Germany, which hopes to enter parliament for the first time in September, still opposes same-sex marriage but the issue hardly seems likely to rally voters behind it.
A popular satirical program, public broadcaster ZDF's Heute Show, summed up Merkel's flexibility and longevity with a backhanded compliment Friday on Twitter.
"Merkel votes against 'marriage for everybody.' Shame. But she has another eight terms as chancellor to think about it," it wrote.