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Under Merkel, Germany is asleep at the wheel

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 6 August 2015

germanyIf recent media reports can be believed, Angela Merkel has decided to run for a fourth term in 2017. This will come as a surprise to those who had speculated that the German Chancellor might resign sometime before the next election. After all, she has been in office for nearly ten years and led her party since 2000.

Though the next German election is still a couple of years away, the outcome is fairly easy to predict: thanks to her personal popularity and the chronic weakness of the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, Merkel will remain in power.

What is far less clear is why Merkel would even want to remain in office. At least there is no obvious project, belief system or grand plan that she really stands for.

Under Angela Merkel, German politics has entered a strange period of hibernation. Where there used to be passionate debates within and between the political parties, boredom has taken hold of the country. Merkel’s sober and dry way of governing has sedated friends and foes alike.

A few recent episodes underline how much Germany’s political system has degenerated under Merkel. First there was the state premier of Schleswig-Holstein, Torsten Albig, who expressed his admiration for Merkel in an interview. She was a good chancellor, Albig said to the horror of his own party leadership. After all, Albig is a Social Democrat. To make matters worse, he added that it might not be a good idea for his own party to run a candidate against her in 2017.

The Social Democrats quickly tried to limit the damage by mocking and scolding their off-message premier, but the damage had already been done. Somehow bizarrely, news magazine Der Spiegel found it necessary to explain in a lead article why it is useful to have rival candidates in democratic elections. In Merkel’s Germany, such truisms apparently need spelling out.

Another telling sign of Germany’s strange political culture is a competition to determine the ‘youth word of the year’. Run by Langenscheidt, a publisher of dictionaries, it aims to find new word creations that are becoming used by the younger generation. One of the frontrunners is the verb ‘merkeln’ (‘to merkel’). Its rough meaning: To procrastinate over decisions, not to voice opinions and simply not to do much while somehow staying on. Say what you like about the youth of today, but they have an apt understanding of Merkel’s strategy.

It is fair to say that Merkel has not simply defeated her political opponents as much as she has just bored them to death. Or maybe she has just driven them to insanity, because after a quarter century on the political stage, nobody really knows what Merkel stands for.

That is quite an astonishing thing to say about a politician who is supposedly one of the most powerful players in world affairs. And yet it is true: there is no discernible philosophy that would inform Merkel’s actions, no guiding principle that is easily recognisable. Other politicians may have even coined catchphrases for their policies: Reagonomics, Rogernomics or Thatcherism come to mind. Yet there is no such thing as Merkelism, apart from its arbitrariness.

The late Peter Struck, a Social Democrat defence minister in Merkel’s first cabinet, once described her style of government nicely. He said that if Merkel was the pilot of a plane, her passengers could board the flight in the knowledge that they would arrive safely, as long as they did not care where they land.

In her time as party leader and chancellor, Merkel has campaigned for many things and their very opposites. She was in favour of flat taxes and then against them. She was for radical labour market reforms until she was not. She wanted to promote nuclear power until she sped up the phasing out of nuclear energy. She wanted to allow Greece to default on its debt before she decided to bail it out.

If the Germans still give Merkel high approval ratings, it cannot be for her political standpoints. She does not have any. What she does have is a highly developed understanding of public opinion. She is known to let debates simmer for weeks or months until she knows which way the wind blows — and then sides with the majority view.

Even Merkel’s lack of rhetorical skills works in her favour. She is not known for inspiring, let alone fiery speeches. Listening to her recent statements in the Bundestag (the German Parliament) it is hard not to fall asleep. But in a strange kind of way, in their dullness her speeches sound almost reassuring. When she talks about Greece, the euro and other worrisome topics, her almost emotionless delivery makes these issues appear so much less threatening.

To reflect the political climate of stagnation, opinion polls in Germany have hardly fluctuated for years. Merkel’s CDU/CSU is typically a few points above the 40 per cent mark; the Social Democrats cannot escape their 25 per cent ghetto, and the smaller parties are resigned to remain in their respective corridors. No wonder politicians like Torsten Albig do not even want to file a rival chancellor candidate against Merkel. With polls like these, there is not the slightest chance that a Social Democrat could take over.

It is not the Social Democrats that have given up. In Merkel’s own party, which used to be full of would-be chancellors, there is no heir apparent in sight. Former rivals have left politics or have been sidelined. Merkel runs her party virtually unchallenged.

And now it appears that Germany might get another four years of this in 2017. The only minor question is whether she will keep her coalition partner or switch to another support party. But even that will hardly matter. Merkel first governed with Social Democrats, then with the Liberals, and now with the Social Democrats again. It did not make the slightest difference. After 2017, she could even try it with the Greens and you would not be able to notice a change of direction.

What makes Merkel’s solid grip on power worrying is the fact that despite Germany’s sedated state of affairs, there are actually a few issues that would deserve passionate debates. Germany lacks a coherent strategy on demographic change. It has neglected microeconomic reforms for too long. It would benefit from a simplification of its tax system.

These are just a few of the issues deserving of public attention and passionate, controversial debates. Instead, Germany’s politicians are just merkelling their way through. The way it is going, this political hibernation might even last until 2021.

With German politics under Merkel, it is a bit like Sleeping Beauty. Except there is no prince in sight to awake it from its slumber.

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