External Affairs

The Rise and Rise of Angela Merkel, or How to Succeed in German Politics

Few thought she’d go the distance when she first came to power. That was more than a decade ago.

Journalists watch a TV debate between German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and her challenger Germany's Social Democratic Party SPD candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz in Berlin, Germany, September 3, 2017. German voters will take to the polls in a general election on September 24. Credit: Reuters

Journalists watch a TV debate between German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and her challenger Germany’s Social Democratic Party SPD candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz in Berlin, Germany, September 3, 2017. German voters will take to the polls in a general election on September 24. Credit: Reuters

When Angela Merkel first became chancellor of Germany in 2005, she was a virtual unknown. Critics were sceptical about her staying power. There were confident predictions that she wouldn’t see out the 100-day honeymoon period traditionally enjoyed by a new incumbent. Now, 12 years on, Merkel is undoubtedly the most powerful woman in the world and a symbol of continuity both at home and abroad. Yet remarkably little is known about her, what drives her and what explains her extraordinary resilience. So who is Angela Merkel and what explains her dominance of Germany’s millennial years?

Within her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel’s rise to political prominence was aided by two factors: she was both fiercely competent and inconspicuous. She was underestimated, even patronised, by party colleagues. Helmut Kohl, the long-serving CDU prime minister who presided over German unification, referred to her as “the girl” (das Mädchen). He never seriously rated her as a challenger for his role.

When Kohl became embroiled in a party funding scandal it was Merkel who represented the new face of the CDU, free of the taint of past party sleaze. Kohl apparently never forgave her for usurping him.

The appeal of the ordinary

Even after three terms in office and after testing the forbearance of the German public with her open doors asylum policy, Merkel remains extraordinarily popular with the German public. Significantly, her popularity extends across all parties.

Part of her enduring appeal lies in her unobtrusiveness. For a politician, she is, well, rather ordinary. Merkel has never felt the need to validate herself through a polished public image. She famously wears the same jacket in a dizzying array of colours, because it’s easier than selecting new styles for every public appearance. Her grounded-ness and indifference to the trappings of the political high life have earned widespread respect.

Although entitled to live in a fine official residence at the Brandenburg Gate, she prefers to stay in a small flat she shares with her husband. When she has time, she cooks her own food. A keen football fan, the photos of her and president Joachim Gauck celebrating in the German national squad’s dressing room after their 2014 World Cup win look natural and convincing.

In her understated way, Merkel conveys an image of a woman who can’t be bought; who somehow remains outside the privileged elite. Both endearing and slightly demeaning, her nickname of “Mutti” (Mum) combines common responses to this eastern-born outsider and cements a sense of trustworthiness that serves her well with the voters.

Patience and pragmatism

A large part of Merkel’s success lies in her consummate mastery of the German political system. Quite simply, she has what it takes to win in German politics. She is cautious, pragmatic, strategic, patient, and is imbued with the traditional Christian Democratic certainty that the integration of interests provides a sound basis for governance. She is an outstanding mediator. At times these attributes have infuriated supporters and critics alike, but they have worked for her.

Merkel has a keen instinct for shifts in public opinion and is swift to occupy new ground. This maddens the opposition SPD, which often complains that the union parties are “stealing their clothes”, making it difficult for them to develop a distinctive policy platform.

Just before the dissolution of parliament ahead of the 2017 election, Merkel engineered the passage of a popular bill legalising gay marriage. Although it went against majority opinion within her own party, she didn’t want the SPD or the Green Party to be able to capitalise on the issue in the election campaign.

Merkel is frequently criticised for “de-politicising” government. She tends to a technocratic, pragmatic approach and often sits on the fence. After three terms in office there are concerns that this “Merkel model” of governance is smothering the vigorous plural exchanges that ought to characterise democratic interaction between the mainstream parties.

In particular, critics fear that Merkel’s current grand coalition (where government power is shared between the leading party and the main party of opposition) is driving out the democratic principle of alternation of government (where there is a real potential for elections to replace one government party with another). With no mainstream opposition to the existing government, voters are drawn to cast a protest vote for radical parties, such as right-wing populists AfD. Moreover, this middle-of-the-road approach blocks reform of outdated policies.

While these are valid arguments, Merkel’s depoliticised approach is in fact a logical strategy for sustained leadership in the German political system. In order to pass major domestic legislation in Germany, a government has to get a bill past not only the parliament, in which it has a majority, but also the second legislature, the Bundesrat, where the federal government majority is not replicated. In practice, every government has to “collude” with opposition forces on a routine basis if it is to be successful.

The “boring” election campaigns so common in German politics are also a function of the system. Until the votes have been cast and the parliamentary arithmetic is known, neither the CDU/CSU nor the SPD can know for sure how it might work with the other parties in parliament to forge a majority coalition government. The election is only the beginning. Many of the details of the new chancellor’s programme will not be settled until the rounds of coalition negotiations that take place immediately afterwards. It makes sense, then, for the two main parties to avoid specifics on their policy platforms. Keeping their powder dry, though, can make the public feel that their main concerns are not being adequately addressed.

Recently, media reports have highlighted unprecedented levels of rage and polarisation in post-war German opinion. The anti-immigrant Pegida movement and the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) have voiced views that only a few years ago would have been considered completely unacceptable in public discourse. This has carried over into society, where public opinion is hardening against asylum seekers.

Some argue that this new German anger can’t be dismissed simply as a protest vote for the AfD, but may indicate a more profound disaffection with the Merkel model. But a quick glance at the world outside and the alternative leadership at home seems to have persuaded most voters that this is not the time to throw their toys out of the pram. The Merkel decade has quietly transformed Germany into a world power while protecting the economy from the worst of the fallout from the eurozone crisis. Throughout the postwar period, German voters have shown a strong inclination for predictability: for “the devil they know”. Perhaps this more than anything else will secure one more term for Merkel.

Patricia Hogwood is a reader in European politics at the University of Westminster.

This conversation was originally published on The Conversation.