The Angela Merkel model – or how to succeed in German politics

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When Angela Merkel became Chancellor of Germany in 2005, she was a near-unknown. Critics were skeptical of his stamina. There were confident predictions that she would not see the 100-day honeymoon period traditionally enjoyed by a new incumbent. Today, 12 years later, Merkel is arguably 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 motivates her and what explains her extraordinary resilience. So who is Angela Merkel and what accounts for her millennial domination of Germany?

Within her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel’s political rise was aided by two factors: she was both fiercely competent and discreet. She was underestimated, even patronized, by party colleagues. Helmut Kohl, the longtime CDU prime minister who presided over German unification, nicknamed her “the girl” (das Mädchen). He never seriously assessed her as a challenger for her role.

Merkel and Kohl in 1991.
EPA

When Kohl found himself embroiled in a party funding scandal it was Merkel who represented the new face of the CDU, free from the taint of the party’s sordid past. Kohl apparently never forgave him for having usurped it.

The call of the ordinary

Even after three terms and after testing the tolerance of the German public with her open-door asylum policy, Merkel remains extraordinarily popular with the German public. Significantly, its popularity spreads to all parties.

Part of its lasting appeal lies in its discretion. For a politician, she’s, well, pretty ordinary. Merkel never felt the need to validate herself through a polite public image. She wears the same jacket in a dizzying array of colors, because it’s easier than picking out new styles for each public appearance. His roots and his indifference to the traps of high political life have earned him widespread respect.

Although she has the right to live in a beautiful official residence at the Brandenburg Gate, she prefers to stay in a small apartment that she shares with her husband. When she has time, she cooks her own food. Passionate about football, the photos of her and President Joachim Gauck celebrating in the dressing room of the German national team after their 2014 World Cup winning seems natural and compelling.

In her discreet way, Merkel conveys the image of a woman who cannot be bought; who somehow stays outside the privileged elite. Both endearing and mildly demeaning, his nickname “Mutti” (Mom) combines responses common to this Eastern-born foreigner and cements a sense of trust that serves him well with voters.

Patience and pragmatism

Much 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. It is cautious, pragmatic, strategic, patient and imbued with the traditional Christian Democrat certainty that the integration of interests constitutes a solid basis for governance. She is an outstanding mediator. Sometimes these attributes infuriated supporters and critics alike, but they worked for her.

Merkel has a keen instinct for changes in public opinion and is quick to take on new ground. This infuriates the SPD opposition, which often complains that union parties “steal their clothes”, making it difficult for them to develop a separate political platform.

Just before the dissolution of parliament ahead of the 2017 elections, Merkel organized the passage of a popular bill legalize same-sex marriage. Although this went against the majority opinion within her own party, she did not want the SPD or the Green Party to be able to capitalize on the issue in the election campaign.

Squeeze the “flesh” on the election campaign.
EPA / David Hecker

Merkel is frequently criticized for having “depoliticized” the government. She tends to take a technocratic and pragmatic approach and often sits on the fence. After three terms, there are fears that this “Merkel model” of governance stifles the vigorous plural exchanges that should characterize the democratic interaction between the dominant parties.

In particular, critics fear that Merkel’s current grand coalition (where government power is shared between the ruling party and the main opposition party) will drive out the democratic principle of government alternation (where there is a real potential elections to replace one party government with another). In the absence of opposition to the current government, voters are drawn to a protest vote for radical parties, such as right-wing populists AfD. Moreover, this intermediate approach blocks the reform of outdated policies.

While these are valid arguments, Merkel’s depoliticized approach is in fact a logical strategy for sustained leadership in the German political system. In order to pass major national legislation in Germany, a government must pass a bill not only to parliament, in which it has a majority, but also to the second legislature, the Bundesrat, where the majority of the federal government does not is not replicated. In practice, each government must regularly “get along” with opposition forces in order to be successful.

The “boring” election campaigns so common in German politics are also a function of the system. Until the votes are cast and parliamentary arithmetic is known, neither the CDU / CSU nor the SPD can know for sure how this might work with the other parties in parliament to forge a government of majority coalition. The election is only the beginning. Many details of the new Chancellor’s program will only be worked out during the rounds of coalition negotiations that will take place immediately thereafter. So it makes sense that the two main parties avoid details on their political platforms. Keeping their powder dry, however, can give the public the impression that their main concerns are not being adequately addressed.

Recently, media reports have highlighted unprecedented levels of rage and polarization in post-war German opinion. The anti-immigrant movement Pegida and the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) expressed views that only a few years ago would have been viewed as totally unacceptable in public discourse. This has spread in society, where public opinion hardens against asylum seekers.

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


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