Few politicians reach influence and status like Angela Merkel. Leader of her Christian Democrat Party for 18 years and German Chancellor since 2005, Merkel has topped the Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women for seven consecutive years. In 2015, TIME magazine named her ‘person of the year’.
The rise of Angela Merkel has been so extraordinarily steep, it makes her fall all the more precipitous.
Merkel’s popularity is waning, her party is facing defeat in critical state elections, and her colleagues are openly rebelling. The Chancellor is in office, but she is no longer in control. Merkel may be history within weeks or months.
If you are not following German politics closely, all this may surprise you. Merkel’s international image is dominated by the accolades mentioned above. There she is often portrayed as an ‘iron lady’ and a determined political operator. Her actions in the refugee crisis of 2015 even convinced international observers that Merkel was an idealist driven by humanist instincts.
However, Merkel’s positive international image is as superficial as it is wrong. Far from being a conviction politician, her prime skill had always been to jump on and off bandwagons as it suited her. It served her well in the polls for more than a decade but this method has gone past its use-by date.
To understand Merkel, it is telling to look at her political beginnings. She entered politics straight after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. At the time, she was working at a chemistry research institute in East Berlin and had no party affiliations.
People who met Merkel during that time later reported that she initially ruled out the right-of centre Christian Democrats (CDU) for herself; instead, she considered the Social Democrats but found them too chaotic for her taste. In the end, she joined the smallish Democratic Awakening, which half a year later got swallowed by the CDU.
That Merkel eventually ended up as a CDU member despite no conservative leanings surprised even her former boss Lothar de Maizière, the last elected Prime Minister of East Germany and whose spokesperson Merkel was. He later said her party affiliation was accidental.
Accidental or not, Merkel seized the opportunities as they arose and became a minister in Helmut Kohl’s cabinet after unification. Serving under Kohl was her political apprenticeship. Kohl’s method was Aussitzen – “to wait things out”. Rather than taking the initiative, Kohl mastered the art of waiting for the right moment to enter debates when the outcomes were already becoming clear. Merkel took notice.
Merkel’s moment came two years after Kohl lost power in 1998. Her CDU party got engulfed in a political donations scandal, and with a brutal opinion piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Merkel knocked Kohl off his pedestal, removed party leader Wolfgang Schäuble, and installed herself as his successor.
It was a remarkable political achievement. Coming from obscurity and with no long-established networks, Merkel had made herself leader of the traditional right-wing, conservative and largely Catholic CDU. And she did so as a Protestant, divorced East German woman.
As party leader, Merkel criticised Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for not doing enough to reform the economy, which was in the doldrums. She thought she could win the 2005 election by promising tough, free-market reforms, including flat taxes. When the election results were far below her expectations and forced her into a so-called grand coalition with the Social Democrats, she learned her lesson. She has not talked about reforms since.
Throughout her time as chancellor, Merkel has governed with different coalitions. First with the Social Democrats, then with the liberal FDP, then again with the Social Democrats. After last year’s elections, she was keen on leading a government with the Greens and the FDP, but the latter declared that their positions were not compatible, so Merkel moved back to the Social Democrats.
Merkel’s ideological flexibility is also visible in her policy. She was for the military draft until she abolished it. She was for nuclear power until she switched off Germany’s nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster. She was against bailing out Greece and other countries until she was for it. She declared multiculturalism an abject failure only to open Germany’s borders for an uncontrolled intake of migrants.
There is no discernible core set of principles in Merkel’s actions, and even Germany’s top political commentators are at a loss to describe what drives her. Astonishing for a political figure who has now held prominent positions for 28 years.
Merkel’s methods were effective for many years: Never take positions until the outcome becomes clear. Rob opponents of political oxygen by adopting their policies. Use constant opinion polling to determine political action (“government by numbers”).
There is even a term coined for these practices: Asymmetric demobilisation. It means Merkel would do just the minimum required to keep her core supporters happy enough to turn up for elections while not doing anything to allow her political opponents to galvanise their own supporters.
With the 2015 refugee crisis, however, Merkel’s method has come to an end. Merkel had opened the borders based on initial opinion polling showing a German willingness to help genuine refugees. Merkel also rejected plans to close the German border because she did not want to see any ugly pictures of armed forces attacking refugees.
Merkel’s refugee policy may have been sold as a moralistic gesture but, like most of her other decisions, it was driven by cold, hard politics. Only this time, it backfired. In a rare political mistake, Merkel had underestimated how quickly and severely public opinion turned against her and her decision to open the border.
As much as Merkel tried to correct this mistake in the three years since, it is as futile as trying to squeeze toothpaste back into the tube. Her open border decision has split her party, opened room for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, and led to her decline in opinion polls.
When the two states of Bavaria and Hesse go to the polls in the coming weeks, the result will be a massive decline in the shares of the vote for Merkel’s CDU in Hesse and her sister party CSU in Bavaria. The CDU/CSU, which had already rebelled by installing a new leader of the house against Merkel’s will, might even topple Merkel herself when she stands for re-election as party leader in December.
After 18 years of Merkel’s party leadership, the CDU has just realised that Merkel was never ideologically one of theirs – the party now yearns for a new leader to re-install conservative, right-of-centre values. The prime candidate for such a rollback may be health minister Jens Spahn, who has been crusading along those lines for many years.
Angela Merkel rose from obscurity and with no clear ideological platform. As her time in office is drawing to a close, she leaves her party in tatters, her country’s political system destabilised, and the economy with enough long-term challenges to keep her successors busy for years to come.
Despite the superficial impression of a successful chancellor international observers have held of Merkel over the years, this is the real record of Germany’s long-serving chancellor.