Gay rights have quickly emerged in Germany as a campaign issue in this parliamentary election year, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats struggling to catch up to changing attitudes among voters on issues like gay marriage and adoption.
The debate here was given new impetus by a decision earlier this month by the Federal Constitutional Court, which ruled that gays and lesbians should be allowed to adopt children already adopted by their partners. The next battle, over tax benefits for civil unions, has already begun.
“The decision to put civil unions and marriage on level footing needs a big push,” Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told the news Web site Spiegel Online on Wednesday.
The issue is particularly contentious for Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which has tried to balance a conservative, traditional family-values approach favored by the party’s older voters with appealing to younger voters who support gay rights in greater numbers.
A new opinion survey found that roughly three-quarters of Germans support gay marriage, the newsweekly Stern reported Wednesday. According to the magazine, 74 percent of Germans and two-thirds of Christian Democratic voters are in favor of raising civil partnerships to the same status as traditional marriages.
“Ms. Merkel cannot ignore this,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “She will have to react.”
Adding to the pressure here, last month the lower house of Parliament in France approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in spite of significant opposition from religious leaders. The Senate is expected to pass the legislation in early April. France and Germany, neighbors, partners and the two most influential countries in the European Union, often measure themselves against each other.
Germany recognized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in 2001 but they still lack many of the rights and benefits of their straight counterparts.
Gay rights issues put Ms. Merkel in a particularly tight spot with her political allies. The Christian Social Union, the sister party in conservative, Catholic Bavaria, is even more reluctant to grant additional rights to gay people. The pro-business Free Democrats, a party with a historic libertarian streak, has been looking for a winning issue to reinvigorate it after a series of electoral setbacks.
Over the weekend, several leading Christian Democrats announced that they would support legislation to provide the same tax benefits to gays in civil unions as they do to heterosexual partners, an apparent shift in policy that annoyed the party’s socially conservative wing. Indeed, just last December the Christian Democrats rejected a similar proposal.
But legal experts expect the influential Constitutional Court to issue a ruling this summer that would provide those benefits. As a result of the “clear tendency in the decisions of the Federal Constitutional Court, we should move as quickly as possible to implement the necessary constitutional right of equality,” Michael Grosse-Brömer, the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary whip, told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung last weekend.
The policy shift by the Christian Democrats was quickly criticized by opposition politicians, who accused them of pandering to voters. The news could also put Ms. Merkel in an awkward position between a socially liberal populace, which she is keen to please before elections in September, and her religious conservative Christian Democrats.
Ms. Merkel, a tactical politician who is not averse to changing her party’s stance on issues important to the public if she thinks it will win votes, has in the past embraced center-left policies on a minimum wage and on ending mandatory military conscription, and she could very well do the same with gay rights. But if she tilts too far, conservative voters could stay home in September.
“She is oriented toward maintaining her power,” Mr. Neugebauer said.
CHRIS COTTRELL and NICHOLAS KULISH