Germany Is No Match For Merkel

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For months, Germany’s election has looked like a walkover at best, a cruise at worse. Seven days before the election, little has changed. It’s clear that Angela Merkel will destroy the opposition next Sunday.

Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats have been tracking at around 40 per cent in the polls since before last Christmas. The former physicist remains Germany’s most popular political leader.

Her opponents, meanwhile, have been busier briefing journalists on their leaders’ failings than running a campaign.

For Merkel, this election has been more a listening tour than an election. It’s been a chance for her to show she has the capacity to understand voters’ concerns – while remaining vague on substance. 

That has garnered her criticism from some, both in the opposition and in the media. Merkel, observes Spanish paper La Razón, has come in for criticism due to her “presidential tone … that has skirted by the most controversial issues (such as the euro crisis, Syria and cyber-surveillance)”. 

Still, the strategy has worked so far, according to the polls. Such is Merkel’s dominance that she began her campaign very late. Merkel took off three weeks holiday in July. As her rivals stumped for votes, she was hiking in South Tyrol.

Not even that extended absence six weeks out from federal elections could hurt her. Merkel’s popularity in Germany is grounded in two facets of her style: Firstly, her ordinariness. And secondly, her ability to take a hint.

East German Merkel began her career as “Helmut Kohl’s daughter” in the 1990s. Since, she has cultivated a persona that has something for everyone. Merkel has been photographed shopping for groceries in Berlin. She is always in the stands at football matches. She caters to German culture vultures, too, never missing a Wagner festival in Bayreuth.

Merkel, cartoonist Klaus Stuttmann told French weekly Courrier International last week “is appreciated for her moderation and her thoughtfulness”. Unlike her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, Merkel is not someone with “airs and graces”, Stuttmann opines.

“Merkel is not the embodiment of the ‘high and mighty’, she is not held responsible [for the increasing income inequality]that her policies have contributed to,” the Berlin cartoonist adds.

When voters challenge her on that inequality – the fact that one in three workers in Germany is in casual or low-paid work and that wages have barely shifted since 2000 – Merkel argues that she has created jobs and points to her plans to introduce a minimum wage.

This campaign, Merkel has campaigned on social welfare issues. She has borrowed old social democrat policies such as the minimum wage and proposed rent caps for tenants in German cities.

Again, the strategy has been working for her. German newspapers have wondered aloud if Merkel was now a social democrat. Just two years after she announced Germany’s exit from nuclear power, when political reporters joked that she was now a green.

On policy, Merkel is “the woman who swipes it all”, said Hamburg weekly Die Zeit back in July: “None of the big projects that [Merkel’s] government pushed through in its last term were in its [post-election] coalition agreement [with the pro-business Free Democrats]. Few were in the Christian Democrat program,” the paper comments.

“Merkel’s tried and tested strategy – demotivating SPD supporters by stealing their issues – threatens to demotivate her own supporters.”

At times, old-school conservatives have attacked Merkel as her government pirouetted left. But no conservative has ever been able to challenge her successfully.

That’s because Merkel is a winner. And because her leanings are based on electoral arithmetic. German politics leans left of centre. Three of the five parties in parliament are centre-left or leftwing: the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the former communist Left Party.  

So it is from the centre-left that Merkel takes her policies. “Merkiavelli”, like her mentor, the Renaissance political philosopher, sees politics as the art of the possible. In the German proportional system, the winning party must almost always find a coalition partner with which to implement policies.

Polls signal Germans would prefer to see a coalition of the two major parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. Hence, Merkel has already signalled her willingness to deal with the centre-left before the vote.

This is, by all measures, a crucial vote. For months, decision-makers in Berlin and Brussels have put decisions on hold in anticipation of Germany’s election on 22 September. No one is willing to antagonise Angela.

Accordingly, dealing with the debt crisis has been postponed. New bailouts for Greece and possibly Portugal will be negotiated after the vote. Talks on a European banking union – to which Germany has an equivocal stance – will resume later this year.

However, this German election campaign has not, by and large, concerned the future of Europe. After all, to raise the question of debt, and debt repayment, during an election campaign would awaken voter “angst” of a euro zone collapse. And the euro crisis is German voter’s biggest bugbear, surveys show.

“Electoral strategists apparently see the issue as toxic,” opines Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. “If a huge majority of the population is of the opinion that the government did what it could in a difficult situation, then the opposition can’t make much headway.”

Indeed, the non-debate over European policy here is a synecdoche for the non-campaign that has played out here this year.

An open field – free of uncomfortable questions crowding out her message – has given Angela Merkel the chance to score her electoral goals unhindered.

Like at the high point of John Howard’s popularity in Australia, Merkel’s opponents have tried to to undermine her by spreading rumours about her retirement.

It’s a mark of her unassailability that she is tipped to be planning her exit for 2016 – a full term after her apparently unstoppable re-election next week.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories. 

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