Angela Merkel, “The Queen of Germany” is floundering with her highly controversial policies. She will have to prove herself in turbulent times ahead.
Merkel’s trustworthiness has been confirmed in polls. It never occurred to anyone that she would be pursuing any other agenda apart from being chancellor. There is actually something soothing about her cool style of politics and her completely unglamorous private life – she lives in a modest home, cooks her own meals and goes on hiking holidays. She caters to the popular German idea of being a “normal” person. When asked whether she had one last message at the end of a televised debate during her 2013 election campaign, she simply said, “You know me.” That went over well and sounded reliable. But today, many people are no longer sure what they can expect from Merkel.
Alone among foes
Things were going quite smoothly for her until the recent refugee crisis, Brexit and Trump. Now Angela Merkel will have to prove herself in the stormy times ahead . Low unemployment, a respectable growth rate and a solid financial position no longer soothe the majority of voters. Germany, Europe and the world have become polarized. Times are turbulent and the number of difficult international partners is growing.
Merkel often stood up to Putin when her reputation in Germany was still untarnished and she was an important force in the EU. Her new weakness, that she is no longer invulnerable, is being exploited by President Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman. Even small eastern European countries, that once fawned over Germany like a wealthy uncle who would help them be accepted into the European family, are closing ranks against the pro-European chancellor because they believe in the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state.
Against this backdrop, Angela Merkel must now, as the “New York Times” has written, slip into the role of the “liberal West’s last defender” and then get on with the job of governing.
Wanting to lead despite a false start
If she wants to accomplish this in the long term, she must win a majority and be validated as chancellor. This is likely to happen. Yet, she has already made some regrettable mistakes. The future German president comes from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and not her Christian Democrat Union (CDU). This is a heavy blow for the largest party and senior coalition partner in the government. She put off decision-making for too long, until the SPD leader Gabriel went ahead and did it for her. That will go down as a serious defeat in Merkel’s history, especially as she has never had much luck in nominating a German president.
The impact of political changes
Everything prior to 2015, the year of the great refugee arrival in Germany, was fodder for the Merkel myth. It was the story of Merkel’s childhood, youth and university studies in East Germany and her Protestant family. Most of it was apolitical but it showed her drive and determination. All this, combined with the propitious fall of the Berlin Wall, allowed Merkel, a conservative-looking young woman, to move up quickly in a male-dominated system during the Helmut Kohl era.
When the CDU donor scandal tarnished Kohl’s shine – an affair that has not been solved to this day – she seized the opportunity and became head of the CDU in 2000. This was the genesis of the Merkel myth, which flourished until the summer of 2015.
Ever since, reality has overtaken politics. With her refugee policy, it seemed as though Merkel had found her calling. But more than that, she had a political vision. Instead of her characteristically long periods of silence and late decision-making, she showed her political will – at least verbally. It was an act of humanity, without an ulterior motive and as the new magazine “Der Spiegel” wrote, “a moment of political beauty.” Now she partly regrets what she did not want to see or stop the uncontrolled influx of hundreds of thousands or refugees inthe second half of 2015. Even then, people were asking, “Does she know what she’s doing?”
Maximum loss of control – first at the borders
She did not manage to channel the historic moment into rational policies. She antagonized the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party and coalition partner, and blindsided the German states. She stood by and watched fear and anger grow in the community, which turned to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) for answers. In her own party, her more conservative peers reached their threshold of tolerance. Now, there are CSU members who do not want to campaign with her.
Her reputational damage in the EU is no different. She opened the German borders for hundreds of thousands of refugees without having spoken to other EU partners about sharing the burden. The European neighbors were not – and still are not – willing to cooperate.
The most difficult term at the end
Merkel is likely – if one can predict anything at all – to become chancellor for a fourth term. Even though her party has lost voters, she may still be able to form a grand coalition with the SPD, which has suffered an even greater loss of voters. But would this be the will of the voters, or the right answer for the protest voters? She and her party may end up being number one in the parliamentary elections, but she will be the chancellor of a polarized political landscape. Her toughest years are yet to come. The question remains whether Merkel herself will be able to decide when her time as chancellor is over.