Angela Merkel: the world’s most powerful woman
As German election nears, shadows are falling over the chancellor’s looming victory
German chancellor Angela Merkel: the secret to her survival early on – eliminating her rivals – has turned on her now. Photograph: Getty Images
If you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, you know what to expect from an Angela Merkel election rally. Like Glinda, the Good Witch of the East, Angela the Angelic floats into a small town to enthrall the faithful before a rustic backdrop.
An hour later, as the last notes of the national anthem drift into the mild summer air, she floats away again leaving behind a warm feeling and a trail of rhetorical soap bubbles.
Now running for a fourth term on September 24th, Merkel’s campaign appearances have been optimised to have the comforting, ritualised repetitiveness of a children’s book.
But on this Saturday lunchtime, things are not going to plan. On the market square of Quedlinburg, a gorgeous medieval town in eastern Germany’s Harz region, the atmosphere should be amiable, but it’s noxious.
Beside 20 rows of invited guests sitting on wooden benches, a banner from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) flutters from a building over two stories, reading: “Protect the constitution from Merkel. Get your country back.”
Behind the bloc of guests and photographers, black-clad neo-Nazis and a few hundred AfD supporters alternate between shouts of “Merkel must go” and furious whistle-blowing. So much air, so much anger.
“I didn’t expect so many protestors,” said Alex Hickley, a 14-year-old teenage girl visiting from Kent. “The whistles are so passive-aggressive but I suppose you can’t ban them.”
Scores of undercover security officers in Jack Wolfskin jackets scour the square and eventually decide against letting Merkel run the gauntlet.
Instead she heads straight for the stage to cheers from the assembled supporters of her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Even with the amplifiers turned up to an impressive Spinal Tap 11, she has to shout hoarsely to be heard over the furious, whistling din.
She holds her nerve for 40 minutes, making only minor departures from her memorised script.
“Some think you can solve the problems of people in Germany with screaming,” says the 63-year-old leader, squinting in the sun, “but I don’t and nor, I think, do the majority on this square”.
The most striking thing about the rally is not the routine speech, the polite applause or the organised protest but the emptiness at the back of the square. Even on a sunny Saturday lunchtime, in her native eastern Germany, Merkel is not the draw she used to be.
Despite the seemingly small crowd, in this uncertain era of Donald Trump, Brexit and North Korea, Merkel is perhaps the world’s most powerful – and stable – leader.
And her name is the perfect ice-breaker, criss-crossing this country of 82 million as Irish Times Berlin correspondent. Everyone has an opinion on Merkel.
“I can’t stand the woman, she’s just coulda, shoulda, woulda,” says Friede, a retired teacher from Dortmund visiting Quedlinburg.
What does she mean exactly?
“Simple. I listened to one of her speeches recently, thought it was fine, then went online and read the transcript and realised: there’s nothing there.”
Others are more restrained. Like Evelyn, a retired doctor taking the train home to Stralsund, in Merkel’s Baltic Sea constituency.
“She’s a good woman, we’re lucky to have her, and I certainly wouldn’t want her job with Donald Trump,” she said. “But I worry she’s not doing enough for the future of the country, for our young people. We Germans are resigned to our prosperity.”
Germany’s economic engine is purring at peak prosperity: 1.6 per cent growth, a post-unification jobless low of just four per cent and, for the fourth successive year, a balanced budget.
On September 24th at 6pm, barring a cataclysmic event, Merkel and her CDU will once again finish on top. But, with close advisers conceding this is probably her last term, Angela Merkel’s mind is preoccupied with one thought: have I done enough to prepare the country for the looming challenges?
East German-born writer Alexander Osang, the most insightful chronicler of Merkel’s rise, has spent more than 25 years studying the chancellor. But even he says he still feels “like an astrologer, trying to read her” and was conflicted when he heard she was running for a fourth term.
“As a citizen I feel it’s good to have someone like her who knows how everything – and everyone – works,” he says over tea in Berlin. “But, as a journalist, I see she’s getting very regal, sees herself as irreplaceable, and that’s always a sign someone’s been in power for too long.”
From clumsy beginnings, the politician once dubbed das Mädchen is now the embodiment of countenance and control.
Osang’s most recent Merkel portrait in Der Spiegel was a bittersweet farewell to a fascinating, frustrating and increasingly distant subject, someone he dubbed “the woman in amber”.
Like another leader, Moses, Merkel arrived in her new life in a basket. Her late father, Horst Kasner, was a pastor and theologian who left Hamburg with his wife and newborn daughter in 1954, answering a call from the Lutheran Church to keep Christian teaching alive behind the Iron Curtain.
The only thing he remembered of his young daughter, Kasner told Osang once, was how she was Harmoniesüchtig: a harmony obsessive, afraid of conflict.
Raised in the pretty town of Templin, 90 minutes north of Berlin in the state of Brandenburg, her schoolmates remember Angela Kasner as a mousy girl with watchful eyes who collected art postcards and belonged to the “unkissed club”.
Brilliant at maths and languages, she was a disaster in physical education: swimming lessons were spent procrastinating on the diving board before leaping, at the last minute. Decades later, as she procrastinated in the euro crisis, the diving board was immeasurably higher.
To get out of Templin, Merkel studied physics in Leipzig and married – and divorced – young. She showed no interest in the growing unrest in late 1980s East Berlin, reportedly telling a work colleague: “It won’t change anything.”
But things did change, and quickly. Within weeks, she had gone from apolitical physics researcher to deputy press spokesperson for the last, democratically-elected East German government. From now on, politics was her laboratory.
Within months she was recruited – disbelievingly – to Helmut Kohl’s first unification government and shone as environment minister, securing agreement on what would become the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
But a decade as Kohl’s Mädchen was enough and, when her mentor was embroiled in an illegal fundraising scandal after losing power in 1998, she spotted an opportunity to attack him and snatch the CDU party leadership in 2000.
As Günther Krause, an early admirer who secured Merkel her northeastern constituency, told Alexander Osang: “She is a nice young woman who will kick you in the arse as soon as you turn your back.”
Underestimated from the start, even when she narrowly got into office in 2005 after a disastrous election result, few predicted she would become an indispensable world leader who would outlast Margaret Thatcher and, with a fourth term, would draw equal with her mentor, Kohl.
Walk the corridors of power in Berlin and you soon realise there are probably only half a dozen, tight-lipped people here who actually know Merkel well. The rule of thumb is: the more someone talks about her, the less they actually know.
She is fascinating to watch but what is she like to work for? Someone with no time for sycophants, says one Merkel insider, a woman who is willing to change her mind if challenged with better arguments.
Follow her for long enough and you see a pattern, a “Merkel Method” of power that functions as a kind of dialectic process. She weighs up theses and counter-theses, her own policies and those of political rivals, until – at the last minute – she reaches a conclusion. Refusing to be baited, or rushed, she presents her policies in carefully calibrated low-key, calm, inclusive language.
For her critics – in Germany and beyond – the “Merkel Method” is a cynical exercise in securing power at all costs: all tactics, with no long-term strategy.
They point out that the prosperity of her 12-year term has little to do with her and everything to do with the economic and social reforms that felled her Social Democrat (SPD) predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.
And Merkel’s 15-point lead in polls this week is not just her own strength, but because the SPD still cannot decide whether its reforms were a necessary evil or a betrayal.
By contrast, Europe’s austerity chancellor, her critics point out, has never dared impose any austerity at home. Nor has she used her whopping two-thirds grand coalition parliamentary majority to push through Germany’s overdue reforms of the pension or tax systems.
Demographics means that, by mid-century, the German population is expected to shrink to 65 million – with more than half older than 51.
But given the huge influence of older voters at election time, though, the country’s pension system remains untouched.
Then there is Chancellor Merkel’s Energiewende, announced by her after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, for Germany to go nuclear free by 2021. Her renewables gamble could yet succeed but, if it fails, Germany’s industrial backbone is in peril.
Another looming risk: the long-term consequences of massive emissions fraud by German car manufacturers. If Germany’s car companies miss the e-mobility turn-off, 800,000 jobs are at risk and Germany hits the wall.
As German industry struggles with its digital transition, a recent survey found its telecommunications infrastructure was slower than Albania’s. A stronger euro in the coming years, meanwhile, will make expensive German products less competitive on world markets.
Risks for the German economic engine are everywhere, and that’s before we factor in risks from Brexit and US protectionism.
Deepen the euro zone
Though Brexit and Europe are absent in the German election campaign, Merkel’s ambition is to deepen the euro zone. But that will depend on her courage to challenge two contradictory, hostile narratives: elsewhere, that the EU is a German vehicle, and at home, that the EU is a conspiracy against German savings.
Looking across the Atlantic, the previously unconditional transatlantic co-operation relationship is now conditional, she warned last November, on President Donald Trump respecting western values of democracy, freedom and respect for all. Six months down the road, returning from a disastrous G7 meeting with Trump in May, she warned a beer-tent audience that Europe could no longer fully depend on anyone else in the world.
The global order is shifting, and Germans are not at all comfortable with the attention and expectation directed at them – and their chancellor. And though the shifting global order will define a fourth Merkel term, her legacy will probably be defined by her most uncharacteristic decision in power.
Two summers ago Merkel refused to close German borders during the peak of the refugee crisis. By the end of 2015, Germany had 890,000 more people – Syrians, Afghans and others – living in the country than expected, the combined population of counties Cork, Galway and Westmeath. Another 280,000 – Wexford and Wicklow – arrived in 2016.
German volunteers welcomed exhausted arrivals with uncharacteristic euphoria, encouraged by Merkel’s “we can manage this” mantra. To the doubters, who wondered how many seeking asylum were economic migrants, or Islamists, Merkel warned: “If we have to apologise for showing a friendly face in an emergency, then this is not my country.”
This week she admitted, two years on, that this was an unscripted remark that “came from deep within me, because it was my conviction”.
For a leader who has perfected the art of hiding in plain sight, however, just what those convictions are remains a mystery. Some point to Christian charity and her upbringing as a pastor’s daughter; others see her motivation in her study of the “open society” philosophy of Sir Karl Popper.
For her part, Merkel says she simply wanted to avoid a humanitarian disaster when refugees were faced with closed German borders.
But her humanitarian convictions soon gave way to her political survival instinct. Her European partners, Merkel soon learned, were as apathetic to refugee burden-sharing as she was before Germany was inundated. After a series of attacks last summer, 12 people were crushed by a truck at a Berlin Christmas market. The driver: a known Tunisian Islamist claiming welfare 13 times with false identities, who should have been deported but wasn’t.
For Chancellor Merkel it was a disaster. For the far-right AfD party, Christmas came early.
On course for a two-digit election result, the AfD has captured voters who see Merkel as grossly negligent, with no idea how to manage the short-term and long-term risks of millions of people she invited in and, with them, extremist Islam.
“This government is no longer master of what happens in this country, it is mocked by everyone,” said Dr Alice Weidel, AfD campaign co-leader.
Sensing Germans’ trauma at this unforgivable loss of control, the Merkel government has tightened asylum rules, pushed for EU-funded refugee camps in Turkey and backed asylum pre-clearance in northern Africa.
With typical Merkel pragmatism, the chancellor insists this is not a U-turn, but about the sustainable management of a migration phenomenon that is not going away.
But neither are Germany’s looming challenges – dieselgate, pension and tax reform, the digital revolution, Brexit. Prof Rita Süssmuth, a former Kohl cabinet minister, suggests the time has come for Merkel to extend her “we can manage this” mantra beyond the refugee crisis to tackle Germany’s unfinished business.
Stayed too long?
“I could say, like the others, say she is an opportunist who just thinks about power, but I can think of so many examples where she took on a challenge and didn’t get just applause,” said Prof Süssmuth. “Looking ahead, I would hope she doesn’t lose her cool and sticks at it. The Mädchen had managed an awful lot.”
Merkel’s final act looms, and is taking on a biblical air. Voter support is firm but resigned, with nearly half of German voters still undecided, a new record. If enough eventually vote to return her CDU on September 24th, it will be with echoes of the apostle Peter to Jesus: “Lord, to whom else shall we go?”
And, 500 years after the reformation began in Germany, the pastor’s daughter turned chancellor has adopted Martin Luther’s famous maxim as her own: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
But has she stayed too long? After all, as a young minister, she confessed to photographer Herlinde Koelbl she wanted to pick her moment to leave the stage, not be “carried out a half-dead wreck”.
Yet the secret to her survival early on – eliminating her rivals – has turned on her now, with no obvious successor waiting and little option but a fourth-term bid.
After 12 years in office wracked by permanent crisis, the world’s most powerful woman looks shattered, but insists she has the strength to carry on. Even if, as she admitted this week: “I still feel how hard political responsibility can be.”