Germany Legalizes Gay Marriage as Merkel Maneuvers Around Rivals

(Bloomberg) -- Germany’s parliament voted to legalize gay marriage, putting the country in line with other European Union nations and the U.S. after Chancellor Angela Merkel unexpectedly dropped her party’s objection to same-sex unions.

Merkel voted against the legislation, but the parliamentary maneuvering behind it was a lesson in how she’s held onto power for nearly 12 years. By opposing the measure, Merkel succeeded in keeping her Christian Democratic Union party on her side three months before a federal election. Yet by allowing her lawmakers a vote of conscience, she helped the opposition to deliver a policy that’s popular with the public.

Germany Legalizes Gay Marriage as Merkel Maneuvers Around Rivals

After years of deadlock, only a week of political maneuvering was needed to pass the bill on Friday and largely remove a contentious issue from the German election campaign. Merkel’s carefully calibrated shift recalls other about-faces during her almost 12 years in office, including abandoning nuclear power after the Fukushima reactor disaster.

With an election on the horizon, the vote was forced by the Social Democratic Party, which is both Merkel’s coalition partner and main election opponent. Almost a quarter of her Christian Democrat-led caucus -- 75 lawmakers -- joined the SPD and opposition parties in backing the measure after Merkel said they should vote their conscience. The tally was 393 in favor to 226 against.

“It’s unclear whether she intended this, but it certainly won’t harm her,” said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling company, whose latest weekly poll gives Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led bloc a 17 percentage-point lead over the SPD. “On the contrary, the topic will no longer bother Merkel during the election campaign because it will be gone.”

With polls showing more than 80 percent of Germans backing gay marriage, Merkel’s balancing act of clearing the way for the bill while opposing its substance allowed her to avoid a rift between her bloc’s socially conservative and more liberal lawmakers.

Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, stood by her party’s traditional position, saying she views marriage as reserved for heterosexual couples, though she backs adoption rights for gay couples.

“For me, marriage in the context of the constitution is an institution between a man and woman,” she told reporters after the vote. She voiced hope that the bill’s passage will “bring a bit of peace and social cohesion” to Germany.

Merkel opened the door in a talk with two journalists on Monday, speaking favorably of a lesbian couple she had met in her parliamentary district and suggesting that lawmakers vote their conscience if the matter came to a vote. The next morning, Martin Schulz, the SPD’s candidate for the chancellorship, demanded a ballot this week.

Rather than provoking a coalition break, Merkel opted to free her lawmakers from toeing the official party line on gay marriage, in effect allowing the vote to proceed.

‘Historic Day’

The vote opens marriage to all in a country that has so far offered rights to gay couples, except adoption, through legal partnerships. The Bundestag voted on a bill that had already been approved by the upper house, or Bundesrat, clearing the way for it to become law, where it may still undergo legal scrutiny.

Legalizing gay marriage brings Germany into line with France, Spain, Ireland, as well the U.S., where the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in all 50 states.

“This is a historic day for our minority -- it’s a contribution to unity, rights and freedom,” Volker Beck, a Green lawmaker who has spent his political career championing gay rights, told the lower house, or Bundestag, referring to the German national anthem.