The secret of Merkel’s success

The German chancellor owes her ascendancy to the bland, apolitical environment in which her ‘talents’ have flourished.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

Topics World

Angela Merkel looks set to win Germany’s national election in September. If she does, she will become the country’s longest serving chancellor. Not a bad record for a politician who, having started her career as junior minister of women and youth in the early 1990s, was seen as an uninspiring young woman from the former East Germany who had been given her post to fulfil quota system requirements. 

Now, 20 years later, Merkel has become a big success story. She is not only the first woman to lead Germany, but also one of the country’s most popular politicians. Her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has recently confirmed her as chairwoman with a historic 97.9 per cent backing. Her national popularity rating stands at 61 per cent. 

The secret of her success? One theory pushed by several Merkel biographers is that being a woman is an advantage. Peer Steinbrück of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), challenger to Merkel in the forthcoming elections, recently claimed that Merkel had a ‘women’s bonus’ (Frauenbonus). Even though his comment did nothing to improve his own popularity ratings, several commentators agreed with him. The German national weekly newspaper Die Zeit published a poll showing that most Germans would prefer to see the chancellor challenged by another woman, such as the SPD’s Hannelore Kraft, the state premier of North Rhine Westphalia. 

But what exactly is Merkel’s ‘women’s bonus’, and, more importantly, what can we expect from her politics?

Merkel’s style over content

Many women rejoiced when Merkel became chancellor in 2005. They were fascinated by the way the woman chancellor Helmut Kohl called ‘my girl’ emancipated herself from what her biographer Evelyn Roll described as an ‘old boys’ network’. 

For a start, it helped that Merkel had no relations to any political system (either in the West or in the former Eastern Bloc). She stood for a new start when politics and politicians seemed deeply discredited, especially her mentor chancellor Kohl, whose CDU had been enveloped in a party-funding scandal. As Roll writes: ‘When at the height of this scandal, the squalidness of the system, its susceptibility to corruption and misuse of power had become apparent to everyone, the reunified country projected on to Angela Merkel the hope that the… political parties might move closer to the ideal state again.’ 

In December 1999, Merkel seized the moment and published an article in the influential conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where she announced that it was time for the party to break with ‘its old warhorse’, Kohl. ‘Angie was great’, writes the publicist Cora Stephan in another Merkel biography: ‘She was able to transform her political strangeness into an unattainable advantage.’

Of course, Merkel’s image as an outsider hinged on her sex. Men were seen as responsible for all that was politically rotten in Germany. It seemed a mere detail that Merkel was actually a member of the same party as the hated Kohl. Merkel’s actual positions on issues that concern women, such as abortion or childcare provision, was ignored. What was important was Merkel’s ‘fresh’ and ‘authentic’ style. 

Compromise – the new magic word

‘It might well be that women are not better politicians than men, but most of them have a better demeanour.’ This was the Frankfurter Rundschau‘s verdict on Merkel. Unlike her predecessors, such as Kohl (‘pompously autocratic’) or Gerhard Schröder (‘wide-legged and aggressive’), Merkel was presented as humble and modest. 

In post-reunification Germany, with traditional party politics mired in scandal, Merkel’s style mattered. It was seen as less testosterone-fuelled than that of the men who had ‘messed up’ politics. Everything which appeared distasteful – self-interest, aggressive behaviour, an argumentative and confrontational nature – was blamed on maleness. Against this background, Merkel’s success can be seen as a symptom of a deep disenchantment with politics itself, with the pursuit of interests and the promotion of an ideology.

In the anti-macho Merkel era, compromise became the magic word of politics. And Merkel was brilliant at finding compromises. So after her nomination as the CDU candidate for chancellorship, she promised an election campaign without the confrontational use of ‘bogeymen’ (Feindbilder) rhetoric. She also replaced Chancellor Schröder’s campaign aimed at fostering ‘self-employment’ (Ich-AG) by talking euphemistically of a ‘we society’ (Wir Gesellschaft). And her election programme promised ‘honesty not quick remedies’ (Ehrlichkeit statt Patentrezepte). Compromise is still one of Merkel’s favourite words. She recently called for a ‘fair compromise’ with Britain in the argument over the EU budget. 

Dodging debate

For those of us with a commitment to the principles of open debate, Merkel’s style poses serious problems. It might be true that much of the old politics centred around self-advancement. But the downside to the fashionable rejection of political ego-tripping is that we demand too little of our politicians. Political debate has become dangerously shallow. Chancellor Schröder was criticised for his ‘big-mouthed’ promise to reduce unemployment in 1998. Merkel, on the contrary, was praised for being ‘honest’ enough not to make any promises at all. 

The most obvious implication of the politics of compromise is that debates are marked by consensus. Indeed, thanks to the much-praised Merkel style, never before has German party politics been as boring as in this current election campaign. She has been very successful at concentrating on themes that appeal to majorities, including issues which were traditionally the concerns of other parties. It is no coincidence that the German trade union association (DGB) is not backing the opposition SPD in this year’s election. Instead, the head of the union, Michael Sommer, raves about his good relationship with Chancellor Merkel who in turn affirms her commitment to an SDP staple: the national minimum wage.

Green or pragmatic?

Merkel is a keen follower of the popular view as revealed by opinion polls. Admittedly, she has shown surprisingly good instincts when it comes to seizing the populist moment. Who would have believed that the CDU, the main defender of a conscript army, would do away with conscription? 

Another example of her talent for doing ‘the right thing at the right time’ was her decision to phase out nuclear power in 2012, following the Fukushima nuclear plant scare in tsunami-hit Japan. The leader of the German Green Party, Jürgen Trittin, might be right when he claims that Merkel was forced to submit to green politics. However, Merkel’s submission was not down to a genuine danger posed by atomic power, as Trittin might like to believe. Rather, Merkel, a physical chemist by training, who had defended atomic power as environment minister during the Kohl era, was driven by a different fear. That is, a fear of German mainstream opinion. The chancellor became green because the German middle classes had become green, and they loathed atomic power. Fukushima merely provided the pretext. ‘Green became government politics’, writes Gertrud Höhler, Merkel critic and author of The Godmother: How Angela Merkel is Reconstructing Germany

The administrator

Merkel’s popularity cannot be explained solely by the fact that she is the first woman to become chancellor. Most people have elected her for a different reason. The image of the ‘new female style’, once praised by Merkel’s feminist fans, has been replaced by something else. Above all today, Merkel is viewed as a good manager who many Germans trust. When I ask friends and acquaintances why they like Merkel, the answer is ‘She does a good job’ or ‘She is the right person for times of crisis’. It seems that the more complicated and confusing the EU crisis becomes, the stronger German people’s trust in their chancellor becomes. 

When the UK press referred to her as a ‘Swabian housewife’ – that is, a hardworking, southern German in her commitment to austerity programmes – this only served to confirm Germans’ positive impression of her. After all, don’t the qualities of a Swabian housewife correspond to our image of ‘good housekeeping’ more than any other management model? Merkel is the grand mistress of crisis management. Having revived the CDU, she is now seen as having dealt with the current EU crisis. 

Against this background, few criticise her for preferring backroom diplomacy to public debate, and for failing to explain her politics to her own electorate. It doesn’t matter that her public speech is often vague, unclear and filled with empty, meaningless words. Isn’t that what managers are meant to sound like? In this sense, Merkel critic Gertrud Höhler has a point when she writes that Merkel’s public statements have a soothing effect: they relieve the public of the responsibility of holding Merkel to account. 

According to Höhler’s The Godmother, Merkel is a danger to democracy. She has no principles and all that matters for her is power. Yet by concentrating on Merkel the person, and overplaying her abilities, Höhler can only tell part of the story. Why was there no outcry when Merkel announced that she would end nuclear power? After all, her party and her coalition partner, the FDP, had defended atomic power for years. The problems with the sudden change of mind were obvious: ‘At the expense of the economy and the citizens she announced a timetable to phase out nuclear power which caused dizziness even among the Greens’, writes Höhler. 

This makes it all the more surprising how quickly the nuclear issue was settled. Höhler claims that Merkel simply did away with anyone who might have opposed her: ‘She tolerates no authority next to her own.’ Indeed, the list of CDU party leaders who have had to resign during the Merkel era is long. Some had to go as a result of scandals, but others, like the former parliamentary leader Friedrich Merz, a man with clear free-market principles, left the party in open dissent. After he and others had left, the CDU suffered. Yet as Höhler explains, ‘The citizens know it without talking about it: Merkel and the CDU are two different worlds’. The popularity of the chancellor says nothing about the popularity of her party, a paradox corroborated by the CDU’s poor showing in almost all recent local elections.

Backroom diplomacy

The current EU crisis provides Merkel with new legitimacy for her politics of a bipartisan majority. In this situation dissenters are seen as troublesome. Here again Höhler is right to point to the dark side of Merkel’s politics of consensus: ‘Less competition in parliament means more state. And even worse: less competitive democratic struggle narrows… the chances of finding the best solution – sometimes even the chances of truth itself.’ In this era of managerial politics, who believes in ‘finding the truth through debate’? 

However, the real problem is not the chancellor herself, but the apolitical environment which allows her to go unchallenged. Merkel’s style is  not without precedent. Wasn’t Kohl a gifted pragmatist, too? It was he who introduced the environment ministry and who took on more women in his government than any other chancellor before him. Even Merkel’s backroom diplomacy is familiar. In 1950, Germany’s first postwar chancellor Konrad Adenauer promised the Allies a German army, without consulting his own ministry. 

A danger to democracy?

The theory that Merkel is a new dictator solely responsible for the state of German politics is refuted by the state of other parties. There, debates are absent, too. All parties have lost their most outspoken and critical members. The former deputy chairman of the SPD, Wolfgang Clement, was kicked out of the party because of his staunch support for atomic power. Politicians with charisma, who are willing to swim against the tide, seem to have no place in modern party politics. 

Who of the liberal FDP was willing to openly criticise the anti-atomic consensus? Who risked an uprising when core areas of national sovereignty were being undermined as a result of the EU fiscal pact? Who questions the mantra that we need ‘more Europe’? Yes, there are a few critical voices, but none of these seem to find a platform in their parties. They either turn to Germany’s highest court to block Europe’s new bailout fund (Peter Gauweiler of the CSU and Daeubler Gmelin of the SPD) or they leave politics for a new corporate career (Friedrich Merz, Wolfgang Clement). 

Moreover, the parties have great problems finding anybody who wants to take up the political fight. The SPD had no choice but to fall back on Peer Steinbrück. He enjoys a reputation as an efficient manager and served as Merkel’s finance minister in the grand coalition. He is not going to set the agenda for a new, exciting political debate. Instead, he began his election campaign by parroting Merkel: ‘Germany needs more “we” and less “I”.’ 

Henhouse politics?

As far as assertiveness is concerned, Merkel is seen as ‘more masculine than most men’. Her critics blame her for being a power hungry, ruthless tactician. This alone shows how misleading the talk of a women’s bonus is. 

Yet, in its desperation, the opposition has resorted to the gender game. The SPD’s Hannelore Kraf, currently being set up as an alternative to Merkel, led her campaign in North Rhine Westphalia as the great ‘carer’ (Kümmerin was her German nickname). She campaigned for mutual respect, complained about too much pressure in schools, and talked about haircuts. 

Given that 50 per cent of the German electorate are women, it is only natural that women should play a bigger role in politics. The women issue says nothing, however, about how well voters are represented. The truth is that more and more Germans, whether women or men, have turned away from politics. In the past 10 years the number of people who have not gone to vote has doubled. If style becomes more important than content, politics becomes boring. Rather than talking about a women’s bonus, we need to find more people who are prepared to stand up for what they believe.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is an economist based in Berlin.

Picture by: Jochen LÃŒbke/DPA/Press Association Images

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