Merkiavelli: a leader who keeps winning

Sat, Dec 8, 2012, 00:00

WORLD VIEW:Black humour predominated on Wednesday evening when German chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Hanover with almost 98 per cent support.

“Not since Honecker . . .,” joked one delegate of the record result.

Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s Bavarian ally and long-time political frenemy, said the result had a “Cuban” quality.

The hilarity helped disguise the fact that, after 12 years heading Germany’s largest party and seven years as chancellor, no one really knows for sure what makes Merkel run.

There are many popular theories. The first links her political success to her scientific background, viewing politics less as a campaign map and more as an open-ended laboratory experiment.

“She starts the same experiment in 10 test tubes, adds different ingredients to each, shakes them occasionally and then pulls out the tube that gives the desired result,” said one long-time CDU official in Hanover.

This theory apparently explains Merkellian politics, where the only ideological concern is: what works?

Another theory sees Merkel’s edge in her mix of womanly wile and a cautiousness arising from her East German socialisation: she holds her tongue and lets her alpha-male political rivals talk themselves into a corner or walk themselves off a cliff.

Without Helmut Kohl’s illegal political fundraising, these theorists suggest, Merkel might not have been presented with an opportunity to sideline her political patron and shaft her political rival, Wolfgang Schäuble.

Would-be rivals

In a similar way, a once- sizeable cast of would-be Merkel political rivals have – with little influence from her – removed themselves from the stage either through self-inflicted scandal or incompetence.

Now they stand on the sidelines, bristling with impotent anger at the woman who got the better of them.

Perhaps there’s a parallel in today’s Europe, where many curse Merkel without reflecting on how they allowed themselves to become so dependent on someone whose bedside manner they abhor and whose crisis cure-all they claim is ineffectual.

Put another way: is Merkel to blame for others’ failure to get the better of her?

Wearing a black blazer in Hanover, a supremely confident Merkel vowed to steer the “proud ship CDU into a good future in Germany and in Europe”.

For this journey into the future, she offered CDU delegates her own compass but no map. Still, they gave her a standing ovation, record support and political carte blanche.

Party in hand, Merkel has now moved on to securing re-election over the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD). Like many of Germany’s European neighbours, the SPD has decried Merkel’s euro zone crisis strategy as a too little, too late, austerity-heavy poison for growth.

But look closer and you’ll see the SPD agrees with Merkel’s diagnosis of the crisis as a sovereign debt problem of the periphery. On the Bundestag opposition benches, only a section of the Greens and the Left Party have questioned this narrative. On this basis the SPD has given Merkel its parliamentary backing for four years of crisis measures.

Questioning these measures on the election trail will call into question the SPD’s own political credibility.

Third term

For many analysts, next September’s general election will be a referendum on whether to give official approval to an already de-facto grand coalition. Framed this way, a third Merkel term looks likely, allowing the German leader to turn her attention back to the euro zone crisis.

She knows this will come at a cost – today: Greece; tomorrow: mutual EU liability. But she will not admit that until effective structures are in place to keep the potential risk – and cost – to Germany as low as possible.

There is no mystery that Merkel sees the euro zone crisis as the endgame on European integration. But her strategy of small steps – conceding, agreeing and revealing only what is strictly necessary, when it is necessary or no longer possible to conceal – makes her difficult to challenge, let alone beat.

Exactly 500 years ago, Machiavelli wrote of such political talents: “One cannot see that they owed anything to fortune beyond opportunity, which brought them the material to mould into the form which seemed best to them.”

Already Merkel has moulded two instances of democratic control – the CDU and the German parliament – to view her crisis strategy as “alternativlos” (without alternative).

The task of Germany’s EU partners is to stop complaining about Merkel’s political skill, and to ensure that her vision of Europe’s future is the one everyone wants.

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