Europe  

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her staying power

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C), party leader of the Christian Democratic Union party (CDU), gestures next to Bavarian State Premier and CSU party leader Horst Seehofer (R) during an election campaign rally in Munich, southern Germany, on September 22, 2017. Christof STACHE / AFP

For the fourth time, Angela Merkel has won election as Germany’s Chancellor. Ajibola Amzat (Features Editor) examines the factors that have sustained her relevance in German politics for the past 12 years.

Surrounded by party hierarchies, the 63-year-old Angela Merkel and German Chancellor walked confidently towards the platform to address her supporters amid cheers, the same people who have been handing her electoral victories since 2005 when she first contested for the highest office.

Though she had hoped for a “better result,” the 33 per cent win in this year’s election has placed her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and its ally, Christian Social Union (SCU), above the five others, including the right-wing nationalist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD) which came third.

By 2021 when she will be completing her new four-year mandate, Merkel would have become the third longest-serving German Chancellor after Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor who spent nearly 23 years and her mentor, Helmut Kohl, who spent 16 years in office.

Pundits have placed her abiding strong leadership alongside that of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the German statesman, who led his country from the ruins of the World War II to a productive and prosperous nation.

Despite the devastation suffered from the attack by the allied nations during the war, Adenauer forged close relations with France, the United Kingdom and United States, and gained stability, international respect and economic prosperity for his country.

Merkel is doing something similar not only to keep the German economy strong, but also the entire economy of Europe, considering her role during the euro crisis. Little wonder she is sometimes referred to as the de-facto leader of Europe.

That is a remarkable record, especially for a woman operating in a political space dominated by men. Since1867 when the office of the chancellor was created in the North German confederation, the country has produced 35 chancellors, and they were all males.

Merkel, however, broke the record 138 years after the founding of Germany. Her party seized power from Chancellor Gerhard Schroder’s coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens in the 2005 elections.

At the time she was tipped for the highest office in the land, Merkel was not only a political neophyte, she was also a less-charismatic figure compared to her predecessor. As an East German and a Protestant, many conservatives regarded her as a candidate without the support of the Catholic, and the middle-class West German mainstream.

She has even earned herself the less flattering nickname of “Iron Girl,” a parody of the “Iron Lady” Margret Thatcher of the United Kingdom. But she went on to defeat the charismatic Schroder, and provided strong leadership for Germany. Her profile by the end of her fourth term may have well eclipsed that of Thatcher.

Notwithstanding, Merkel’s approval rating dipped significantly in the late 2011 because due to her handling of the Eurozone crisis and decision to retain Germany’s nuclear power stations despite the tragic accident in Fukushima, Japan. Observers of German politics thought she would not survive the poll in the next election considering the 50 per cent decline in her approval rating. The prediction though turned out to be inaccurate eventually. She almost won a clear majority, and her approval rating jumped to 77 per cent between 2012 and 2014.

Countless times, the nationalist party has heckled her for accepting millions of unregistered migrants into Germany, despite the danger of global terrorism, and many have concluded that the policy would put paid to her victory in the coming election.

In late December 2015, while taunting the TIME magazine, President Donald Trump rebuked the German chancellor in a tweet, saying: “I told you @TIME Magazine would never pick me as Person of the Year despite being the big favourite. They picked the person who is ruining Germany.” It was a jab designed to deflate the political chance of Merkel at the poll.

But all that is now history. Merkel has proved her critics wrong that she could be trusted by Germans. What could have been the staying power of Mrs. Merkel?

Nikolaus Blome, a German journalist and author of a book on Angela Merkel, “Die Zauderkünstlerin”, sums it up as the ability to deliver – “deliver or die”. Having realised that the only way to build voters’ confidence was to deliver every promise made, Merkel has learnt never to promise what she cannot deliver. And for that reason, she has always been one of the most trusted leading politicians in Germany.

“Merkel is not the big vision type. She is not thinking in terms of legacy,” Stefan Kornelius, another of her biographer said. “She once told me, ‘Historians will judge me by what I have avoided, not what I have done.’”

A carefully measured statement, that is. But that is another strong side of the East German-raised chancellor. Merkel has also learnt not to communicate wrongly. For example, knowing that a word like ‘reform’ elicits meaning such as less income and less social security in the workers’ consciousness, she has completely removed the word from her vocabulary, even if some of her policies were reformist.

And very crucial to her survival, is her ability to stay true to herself and without losing the interest of the Germans. Being at ease with herself is one quality that stands out Merkel, according to Blome.

“Most Germans recognise themselves in the way the chancellor tackles problems with small steps, never, ever putting all her eggs in one basket,” he added.

Blome also hints about the chancellor’s painstaking patience. Well, Merkel is a scientist. She holds a doctorate in Physical Chemistry, and that training may as well explain her orderly approach to issues.

Curiosity kills the cat, but Merkel uses this weapon tactfully to gain deeper insight into political negotiations. “She is curious to learn as much as possible in order to eventually get conflicting interests to compromise — which to her is the essence of politics,” Blome further advanced.

But there is one thing Merkel is not so curious about – dog. Her fear of dogs was activated after being attacked by one in 1995. Since then, she will never move near the animal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin knows of this phobia, yet the only gift he contemplated for his visitor when she visited the Kremlin was a toy dog. During the next meeting, a press conference at his residence, the host let his pet, Labrador; roam freely as his guest sat frozen. He was later to claim that he never meant to scare her.

But Merkel faulted the Russian, as she was later quoted saying: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he is a man. … He’s afraid of his own weakness.”

Well, Merkel survived the intimidation, just as she has done with every other provocation designed to pull her down in her journey to becoming the most successful female politician of her time.



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