A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

The Merkel Mystique


Chancellor Angela Merkel said she expected this year’s election campaign to be her hardest battle yet, but she looks set to sail back into power with a strong mandate. How does she do it?

© REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Angela Merkel’s path to the chancellery did not start particularly well. It was September 18, 2005, and the polls had just closed. Some 13 million Germans tuned into the public broadcaster, ARD, to see the leading candidates of Germany’s main parties – including the incumbent, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats (SPD), and a wide-eyed and visibly uneasy Merkel – grilled on who would run Germany’s next government. They witnessed a somewhat surreal scene: an irate Schröder  tried to cow his opponent into admitting that she would never be able form a government. Merkel, nervous but resolute,managed to face him down.

Until just a few months before the vote, Merkel’s conservatives, the Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union, had enjoyed robust poll numbers upwards of 50 percent. However, by the time the talk show went live on election night, SPD and CDU/CSU were neck and neck, both hovering near 34 percent. It was a debacle for the conservatives. Merkel’s future as chancellor was suddenly shrouded in doubt.

In the end, after all the votes were counted, the CDU/CSU limped away with a slim majority and Merkel ended up as chancellor. Yet this was just the first of many storms she would weather. Few would have predicted then that she would go on to overcome global crises and an increasingly volatile political landscape to challenge former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s record of 16 years in office.

The Outsider

Merkel profited from her outsider status right from the start. She launched her political career in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall; unlike many West German lawmakers who had been immersed in a culture of ideological and political debate since childhood, Merkel arrived with a fresh, raw perspective – a perspective often at odds with what she encountered in a new, unified Germany.

In the former East, for example, some 80 percent of women were working, making West Germany’s reluctance over women in the workplace look decidedly outdated.  That may have been one of the reasons why Chancellor Kohl put Merkel in charge of two areas where he saw drastic need for improvement within the CDU: family politics and environmental policy.

Merkel admits she was surprised and even annoyed by the West German peace movement and education policy at first. She did not share Helmut Kohl’s emotional connection to France and European integration; but then, Kohl had grown up very close to the French border. Instead, she approached Europe with reason and rationality that made her a more objective judge of how best to achieve closer integration. Her ties to East Germany made her view the EU’s expansion into Eastern Europe as a crucial step toward a more unified European bloc.

The Anti-Ego

A key factor driving Chancellor Merkel success has been her unassuming approach to power. As a woman and a politician from a small, regional CDU chapter in the former East, she was forced to patch together her base of support. Early on, she had to learn the art of making deals and striking alliances with lawmakers from across the spectrum. As chancellor, she has drawn on that experience time and again, regularly inviting experts to brief her on a wide array of topics – a way of deepening her expertise while also expanding her network.

In an era when increasing individualization and rapid digitalization have dissolved traditional power structures, Merkel has proven to be wily and versatile, more so than many of her former fellow CDU lawmakers form the former West Germany. Lest we forget, Merkel is now dealing with her fourth French and third American president.

The chancellor is also known for her ability to de-escalate crises, a skill owed to her experiences in politics but also her upbringing in the East, her background in science and, not least, her reticent personality. For Merkel, smart, rational decisions lead to long-term success in politics. So does integrity. She allows defeated opponents to save face and refrains from exulting in victories, even significant ones. Times change, after all, and a win can quickly turn into a loss.

Merkel believes in the importance of respecting other views as a cornerstone of democracy. She once quoted Henry Kissinger’s hypothesis that decisions are often 51 percent correct and 49 percent wrong – an explanation, perhaps, for her long and protracted decision-making process.

Before doing battle, Merkel works diligently to prepare in great detail. She takes her opponents seriously, but she avoids provocation. This year, SPD candidate Martin Schulz lambasted Merkel for what he saw as attempts to avoid real, substantive debate on issues like pensions, calling it an “attack on democracy.” She brushed his rebuke aside with a mild smile. As the head of the CDU, Merkel urges party members to avoid being steered by their opponents’ agendas and instead focus on their own course.

The Strategist

Her approach to politics, particularly in the face of impulsive leaders like US President Donald Trump or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may seem plodding or even hesitant. But for Merkel, politics is about the long game, not short-term gains or setbacks – a lesson learned from her mentor, Helmut Kohl. Despite rocky relations with Trump and Erdogan, Merkel has strived to keep the channels of dialogue and diplomacy open, well aware that she will likely be working with one or both for the foreseeable future.

Critics have also derided Merkel for flip-flopping. Take her and her government’s sudden decision to shut down all nuclear reactors in Germany after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Such an about-face could be seen as a sign of weakness. Merkel, however, believes it to be a strength. To that end, she cited Winston Churchill’s famous truism in 2014: “To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often.” She has repeatedly reminded her critics that one must always be ready to adapt policy in a constantly changing world.

It is no wonder, then, that Merkel seems to deliver policy messages in ambiguous terms that are difficult to decipher, like “solidarity and responsibility.” Other turns of phrase even appear to be contradictory, like describing her party as “social, liberal, conservative.” She uses these koans to preserve her flexibility and neutralize any accusations that she is making too many political changes.

The Moralist

Policies may sometimes change with the wind, but Merkel is quick to point out that she has upheld the same fundamental values throughout her career. She has steadfastly championed the values of Western democracy, reminded Europe of its humanitarian duty towards those in need, and strongly rejected all forms of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. In the case of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Merkel has indicated that some of Europe’s positions toward the Kremlin must be maintained for decades, if necessary.

EU integration, transatlantic ties and the security of Israel are core elements of Merkel’s world order. However, ever since Donald Trump’s election, she has put more emphasis on the importance of honoring the West’s shared values. In her congratulatory message to the newly elected US President on November 9, 2016, Merkel qualified her diplomatic statement with a pointed admonition to the new US leader: “Germany and America are united by shared values: through democracy, freedom, respect for the right and dignity of every individual, irrespective of their origin, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation or political attitude. On the basis of these values, I would like to offer you a close cooperation between the governments of our countries,” she said. Shortly thereafter, media across the world began postulating that Chancellor Merkel had inherited the mantle of leader of the global democratic order – something she resists, as it puts her and her country in a position where they can only disappoint.

In times of crisis, Merkel is able to recognize the opportunity within a setback, possibly a relic of her dialectic training in communist East Germany. She viewed both the election of Donald Trump and the shock of Brexit as wake-up calls and signs that Europe must take its fate into its own hands. The chancellor also openly admits her own fallibility. She takes on her opponents’ issues, and praises her predecessor Gerhard Schröder for his Agenda 2010 labor market reforms, which have benefited her greatly during her time in office. Ever the realist, she promised voters on the campaign trail that the CDU would do its best to represent their interests, but that no party could fulfill all their wishes.

The European

Over the years, Merkel has often said that she thoroughly enjoys her job. She is driven by curiosity and perceives problems as welcome challenges, not as a burden. “I find my work as chancellor enjoyable and inspiring – to constantly face new problems,” she said in 2013, repeating that sentiment again during this year’s campaign. Her perspective can be traced back to her roots in physics, where she was tasked with analyzing and solving complex problems. Last November, for example, she admitted that she had brooded over the decision to seek a fourth term for months, contemplating whether she still had sufficient curiosity for the job. Clearly, the answer was yes.

It is perhaps that self-reflection that makes the chancellor still appear authentic to German voters, according to public opinion surveys. Even after twelve years in office, her popularity ratings have remained remarkably stable and high, with only a single, relative low during the refugee crisis.

At the core of Merkel’s approach to politics lies the belief in the evolutionary process – in the power of hard-fought victories rather than in rapid, revolutionary change. That same perspective shaped Germany in the post-war era, when politics were founded on the importance of coalitions and consensus building between nations, but also between the federal government and its states.

Compromise has been a pillar of Merkel’s approach to politics at home and abroad, particularly in the European Union. The chancellor has taken on the task of shoring up the very building blocks of the EU’s foundation, from the Eurozone currency union to the Schengen free-travel zone. During the German EU presidency in 2007, Merkel wrangled with her European counterparts to win support for the Treaty of Lisbon, an agreement that amended and streamlined existing EU legislation.

At the height of the eurozone debt crisis, Merkel’s skepticism concerning the EU framework’s ability to stem the downward spiral became evident, and Germany quickly took a leading role in steering the bloc back to stability. In 2013, the chancellor began pursuing a series of steps towards further integration, from a common European budget to a eurozone finance minister and closer coordination on social policy and research.

The 2015 refugee crisis served as yet another obstacle to European unity and a cautionary tale for Merkel. She has repeatedly remarked that the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants exposed the need to revisit Schengen: Europe needed to secure its outer borders, relieve member states bearing the brunt of the burden (Italy and Greece), and formulate a unified, EU-wide asylum policy. While her predecessors Kohl and even Schröder championed ambitious new projects for Europe, Merkel has appeared to see her job as patching up the union’s leaks and gaps.

The Techie

Many in Germany do not know that Merkel is a zealous advocate of technological progress. She was ridiculed for her 2013 statement: “The Internet is unchartered waters for everyone,” but the chancellor says she is deeply aware of how technology and digitalization will transform the future in Germany and Europe.

It is therefore one of her chief missions to ensure that Germany and the EU keep up with technological developments on a global pace. Her German government has launched the “Industry 4.0” initiative to urge the Mittelstand – family-owned small- and mid-sized companies that make up the backbone of Germany’s manufacturing base – to embrace the synergy of industry and IT and ready themselves for the future. Just this year, Merkel called artificial intelligence the real driving force behind digitalization, a force that will re-calibrate all aspects of life. Here, too, she warned that Germany and Europe lagged far behind the global leaders, the US and China.

At the same time, Merkel has spurred the country’s mighty auto industry, the engine of the German economy, to shift gears and invest heavily in electric mobility, self-driving cars, and innovation. The ongoing diesel emissions scandal has only sharpened Merkel’s admonitions. She knows perfectly well that if she wins a fourth term, her legacy will largely depend on how well German industry copes with digitalization.

Failure – as reflected in lower growth, declining incomes, and higher unemployment – would certainly erode the Merkel mystique. A safe pair of hands needs, above all, to maintain safety. Otherwise, the caution, rationality, and sobriety that Germans seem to like so much about their chancellor could one day turn stale.