Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 17 January 2013
Surprisingly, readers of this column often ask me: who is going to win this year’s German federal election? I find it so surprising because the result, just about nine months ahead of election day, already looks like a foregone conclusion.
Bar a natural disaster or a Martian invasion, Angela Merkel will be re-elected as chancellor. Only two questions remain: Who will she govern with? And what will she actually do in her third term?
The answer to the first question doesn’t really matter. The answer to the second is ‘nothing much’.
Last week, national broadcaster ZDF released its latest opinion poll Politbarometer. Three results were striking. First, Merkel was Germany’s most popular politician, leaving any potential rival behind by a mile. Second, she also had a staggering 40 percentage point lead over the Social Democrats’ candidate for the chancellery, ex-finance minister Peer Steinbrück. Strikingly, even supporters of the post-communist party ‘The Left’ preferred centre-right Merkel over her centre-left opponent. Third, at 42 per cent Merkel’s CDU/ CSU have their strongest standing in the polls for five years.
To remain so popular after more than seven years in the top job during an economic crisis is quite an achievement. It is both the result of Merkel’s style of government and the weakness of the opposition.
If charisma is the key to electoral success, Merkel is the living exception to the rule. She is certainly not the world’s greatest orator. Neither is she known for creative policy-making. In fact, her positions and core beliefs often remain nebulous. She does not tend to lead public debates and rather disappears from public view to make her statement when the debates are almost over and decided.
It is not the private Angela Merkel that fascinates voters either. Little is known about her family life, and the few things we know suggest that Merkel is as down-to-earth as she likes to portray herself. Her husband, renowned chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, is almost completely invisible and only appears with Merkel in public once a year, at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival. This has actually gained him the nickname ‘the phantom of the opera’.
German voters have reason to be angry with their government. Germany’s commitments to other eurozone economies are enormous; Merkel’s policies in favour of renewable energies have driven up electricity prices; and she still has not delivered on her promise to simplify Germany’s complicated tax laws.
Yet when it comes to opinion polls, none of this seems to matter. Instead of focussing on her government’s actual achievements, voters value Merkel’s unpretentious style. She does not appear like your typical politician because she sounds and looks natural, uncorrupted by power and reassuringly boring. With her essentially apolitical style she seems to have lulled voters into liking her, as strange as this may sound.
Her Social Democratic rival Steinbrück has tried to challenge Merkel by being the very opposite. Not shying away from controversy, he speaks his mind even when he should have known that his positions are unpopular. For example, he claimed that German chancellors are underpaid compared with other public sector jobs. This may even be true but since Steinbrück had just tried to justify his enormous fees on the speaking circuit, it underlined public perception that he was just in the business of politics for the money.
All that Steinbrück’s bluntness does is underline Merkel’s modesty. Next to Steinbrück’s open hunger for power and money, Merkel looked even more other-worldly, more saintly. All that Merkel’s spokesman had to say about Steinbrück’s remarks was that Chancellor Merkel had never felt underpaid in her job.
Thanks to her incredible popularity, Angela Merkel and her party should easily become the strongest party after the general election. She will probably have a lead of more than 10 percentage points over the Social Democrats.
Such a result would almost guarantee that the next German government will again be led by Merkel. However, thanks to a proportional electoral system, she will need a coalition partner, and as it looks she may have many choices. Provided the liberal FDP makes it into parliament, she could continue her current coalition government. Otherwise, a new ‘Grand Coalition’ might be on the cards. Merkel had already governed in such a constellation between 2005 and 2009.
There is even a remote chance that she might enter a coalition with The Greens. The big ideological differences between them and Merkel’s Christian Democrats are a thing of the past, so if electoral arithmetic necessitates such an outcome, Merkel should have no difficulty governing with them as well.
Realistically, these are the three possible coalitions after the elections but all of them would be led by Merkel. If her first two coalitions and her first seven years as chancellor are anything to go by, it really does not matter with whom she governs. She will remain herself – the presidential, matter-of-fact, calm and reactive politician she is and voters apparently love.
For policy-making in Germany and in Europe, however, it means that we should not expect any grand plans or anything radical. The European can-kicking, buck-passing and sleep-walking perfectly suits Merkel’s own inclinations.
So for anyone still asking me about the outcome of the German elections, let me sum it up this way: It will be the most boring election campaign with the most predictable outcome you can imagine.
Unless, of course, the euro crisis suddenly erupts again and finally forces Merkel into making a decision.