Angela Merkel: Germany’s little engine that maybe can’t anymore
The chancellor’s grip on power is still tight, though not nearly as steady as in the past
German chancellor Angela Merkel: Her 2017 re-election will be tricky, holding the political centre while roping in both younger, urban voters and those small town right-wingers looking to the AfD. Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images
When the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo launched its German edition in December, there was no doubt who would grace its first cover: an exhausted Angela Merkel atop a car jack as a Volkswagen mechanic announces, “A new exhaust and it’ll run another four years.”
But the Berlin Christmas market attack that claimed 12 lives means this is now far from certain. Donald Trump’s looming inauguration has shifted attention on to Merkel as the last leader of the liberal free world. Yet close confidants say the idea goes against the chancellor’s grain several times over: as a consensus-driven woman with a modest, ex-East German ego and a strategic head that sees the sense of European co-operation.
Merkel has dismissed the latest label as “grotesque and doomed to failure”, telling her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in early December: “That’s not how the world works.”
Yet, for the second time since the euro crisis, the world in 2016 once again upped its expectations of the 62-year-old German chancellor.
And, for all her post-Trump modesty, it was Merkel who began selling Brand Angela: to German voters in 2013 on a massive poster opposite Berlin’s central station as, literally, a safe pair of hands. The poster dispensed with her face in favour of the diamond shape she makes with her hands in public, a nonverbal signal that has become her “trust me” trademark.
Still, Merkel will need more than hand gestures to secure a fourth term in 2017. Her grip on power is tight but not nearly as steady as in the past. Some 900,000 refugees and the subsequent blowback (sexual assaults, Islamist attacks culminating in the Christmas market killings) have left voters uncertain, angry, fearful.
Coming up from behind, with 13 per cent in polls, the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are banging on the door of the Bundestag. Already shaking up Germany’s political rhetoric, and hoping for a Marine Le Pen boost from France, the AfD is likely to disrupt Dr Merkel’s coalition arithmetic after September’s poll.
The chancellor warned recently that no populist party could scare the CDU into becoming a Cruft’s pedigree, “jumping over every little stick that’s held up”.
Even before the Berlin attacks she had sensed the shifting wind and hardening mood on asylum and security and, in early December, Merkel performed a partial pivot to back a burka ban – “where legally possible” – and swifter deportation of failed asylum seekers.
What she hoped was a sop to CDU conservatives may, after the Berlin attacks, demand a larger policy shift. The once unassailable Merkel has to shift – and quickly – to respond to new vulnerabilities.
Her re-election will be a tricky, two-front campaign: holding the political centre she has come to occupy in the past decade, pulling in younger, urban, floating voters; and trying to pull back the small town right-wingers who have drifted over to the AfD.
Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrat (SPD) leader who has worked twice with Merkel at cabinet, says he has “huge respect” for the chancellor and her political achievements. But he doesn’t envy her challenge ahead. “She’s not had an easy time of it,” he joked earlier this month. “She survived East Germany and Helmut Kohl.”
When it comes to challenging Merkel, Gabriel may well defer to the departing European Parliament president, Martin Schulz, currently neck and neck with the chancellor in approval ratings (57 per cent each).
After the SPD names its challenger in January, Schulz is likely to join the Merkel cabinet as foreign minister after Frank-Walter Steinmeier is, in all likelihood, elected Germany’s next president in mid-February. Political Berlin will grind to a halt ahead of May 14th, when voters in North Rhine-Westphalia choose a new state parliament. The populous state is home to one in five voters, and the poll is a key electoral barometer that marks the unofficial start of federal elections in mid-September.
In what she described as our new, “off-kilter world”, Merkel knows her last major engagement as leader – as G20 host in July, welcoming to Hamburg world leaders including President Donald Trump – could go either way. In her reaction to his election win, the German leader offered Trump a cool, conditional co-operation “on the basis of shared values”, a clear challenge for him to become a statesman.
Even if Trump polishes up, two other guests could cause Merkel misery in Hamburg: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has threatened to dump the EU refugee-swap deal pushed by Merkel, and “open the gates” for refugees to Europe; and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who, senior Merkel officials fear, will reignite the frozen Ukraine standoff or deploy hackers to disrupt the CDU leader’s fourth term bid.
After an exhausting 2016, Angela Merkel’s 12th year in power will be a minefield of uncertainty.