Germany’s popular chancellor will bend— but only so far

PAUL WELLS December 3 2007


Germany’s popular chancellor will bend— but only so far

PAUL WELLS December 3 2007



Germany’s popular chancellor will bend— but only so far


And then Angela Merkel’s governing coalition blew up and she lived happily ever after.

If German politics is sometimes hard for Canadian audiences to understand, it is partly because we have seen far more examples of politicians fatally impaling themselves on garden-variety obstacles (Joe Clark, Paul Martin) than of the gravity-defying feats of sheer political survival that now seem almost second nature to Angela Merkel. It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely political star than this dour, standoffish East German physicist, but she is indeed a star. And whatever it is she is doing, she seems likely to keep doing it for a while yet.

Measured by support in public opinion polls, the taciturn chancellor of Germany is already the most consistently popular postwar leader of her country. From her geographical position between some of Europe’s giddiest eccentrics—Nicolas Sarkozy in France and, until recently, the Kaczynski twins in Poland—she has managed to win respect across Europe for her quiet and determined deal-making.

Only a few weeks ago, Newsweek magazine’s European editions carried a cover story writ-

ing her off (“Lost Leader: Once Hailed as Germany’s Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel is Now Ruling by Poll, Lying Low, Stalling on Reform. What Happened?”). And that was before the shocking resignation on Nov. 13 of Franz Miinterfering, the veteran Social Democratic Party (SPD) statesman who helped broker the so-called “grand coalition” government with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) after the 2005 general election ended in a near-stalemate.

Miinterfering had served as Merkel’s vicechancellor and labour minister. He sat at her right hand during weekly cabinet meetings in the immense, space-age chancellery building in Berlin. He was considered the guarantor of stability for the ungainly coalition of centre-left and centre-right brokerage parties. He had an excellent non-political reason to leave politics—his wife is very ill with cancer. But he was also plainly furious when, only the night before, Merkel blocked his attempts to introduce a minimum wage for postal workers. The policy was a transparent attempt to protect Germany’s state postal monopoly against private-sector competitors by hiking the price of postal labour. Merkel has been granting a number of concessions to her centre-left partner/rival, but she wouldn’t budge this time. And Miinterfering walked.

“This is the end of the grand coalition,” the centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung declared the next morning. Last week’s edition of the

newsweekly Der Spiegel obligingly carried a cover line, “The Crumbling of the Grand Coalition.”

But that was the subtitle. The main title, over a picture of Merkel’s face Photoshopped onto Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, wondered: “Why Is This Woman Smiling?”

The answer is that she seems immune. An Infratest poll taken on the day Miinterfering resigned and the day after showed support for Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian regional sister, the Christian-Social Union (CSU), at 41 per cent, up a point from October and six points above their 2005 election night score. The Social Democrats were at 30 per cent, down four points from 2005. That gap opened up five months ago and it refuses to close.

It helps explain why the grand coalition is crumbling in the first place. Co-operation is killing the SPD and, at about the halfway point between the last election and the next, the party’s survival instinct is forcing it to be less co-operative.“Is the circumstance changing? Yes,” a senior adviser to Merkel’s government told Maclean’s at the chancellery building a few days before Miinterfering’s resignation. “A grand coalition is something the big parties, a priori, always refuse,” the aide said. They’re not as unheard-of as coalitions of Liberals and Conservatives in Ottawa, but they’re uncommon. “From the first day, it was an unnatural thing. But for each party to be credible with their own voters, both had to make it work. At first.”

That lasted until this autumn, when SPD leaders realized that two years of playing nice

had landed them a handful of plum cabinet jobs, a smoothly functioning government, a tidy economic boom—and an opponent with a durable 15-point lead. “The big bang came at the SPD congress at the end of October, which is normal,” the Merkel aide said. “They are trying to show the delta”—a mathematical expression for the distance between two objects, in this case the CDU government and the SPD opposition.

So at the SPD congress in Hamburg, the party membership overrode its own cabinet ministers to vote against the privatization of the Deutsche Bahn rail network. The SPD has also proposed other partial rollbacks of the labour-market reforms that have made hiring and firing easier and social programs more affordable in Germany since Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s SPD predecessor, pushed them through in 2002 and 2003.

In some cases, Merkel has supported the softening of the reform agenda. That partial retreat from reform is what has some outside observers wringing their hands. Margaret Thatcher once warned her opponents, “The lady’s not for turning.” Up to a point, Merkel is happy to turn. It’s not very Thatcheresque.

Karsten Voigt has heard that one before. Voigt was an SPD member of the Bundestag for 23 years. Now he’s the lead official in the Foreign Office for relations with the United States and Canada. (“The way you discuss politics in Canada, it’s not so alien to us,” he told a visitor. “Frank, friendly, unceremonial. And if you disagree, you don’t say you disagree, you just make jokes about third people.”)

Comparisons between Merkel and Thatcher were wrong when they were meant as a compliment, and are unfair now as a criticism, Voigt said. As a direct reaction to certain excesses of government power in the first half of the 20th century, postwar German politics is designed to be highly consensual and, frankly, infernally complex. A British prime minister with a majority, or a French president with a direct mandate from the people, has all kinds of latitude to push drastic reform projects hard. But Germany’s parliament has two powerful houses, one with big-time input from powerful regional governments in the Länder. Its dose of proportional top-up means members of the various parties’ elites can have political careers that last for decades without ever depending on direct support from a particular constituency to survive the next election. They become independent power centres and add yet another layer of complexity.

“Thatcher would have failed in the German system,” Voigt said. “In the German system, you need a strong capability of building coalitions. And you need a killing instinct.”

Merkel’s killing instinct was largely front-

loaded—she used it to get to a position where she could challenge Schröder in 2005, and has had little use for bare-knuckle politics since—so it is easy to forget how unlikely her rise to power once seemed. German politics is dominated by what the American journalist and social historian Nicholas Lemann once called “lifers,” people who start young and advance by promotion during long careers within a complex rule system. You start as a campaign volunteer at 17 and your progress toward a federal cabinet post, if you are very good, is slow but inexorable. Merkel is another type entirely. Lemann would call her a “mandarin,” a highly educated but unprepossessing type whose skills are portable from one task to another. Born in Hamburg, Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany an hour north of Berlin, and what with her research in quantum chemistry she never had time for politics until the Wall came down in 1989.

But for a late starter she turned out to have a knack. Helmut Kohl, the towering, slightly oafish chancellor who unified the Germanies, took her under his wing as a relatively fresh face from behind the vanished Iron Curtain. He called her his Mädchen, or girl. He would not be the last to underestimate her. Rising party lifers like Wolfgang Schäuble and Friedrich Merz, who could reasonably have expected to contend to replace Kohl, watched in astonishment as this awkward, plain-spoken newcomer manoeuvred ahead of them in the party hierarchy.

Meanwhile, Gerhard Schröder beat Kohl and, for a grinning glad-hander with an eerie helmet of preternaturally black hair, turned out to have a courageous streak as a socialpolicy reformer. By 2005, Germans were tired of Schroder’s economic upheavals and his used-car-salesman manner, but an old pro is still a pro: through sheer force of campaign showmanship, Schröder managed to cut Merkel’s 10-point polling lead to barely half a point in the last week of the 2005 election, ruining her ability to form a government with anyone except his Social Democrat successors.

In that delicate situation she turned out to have delicate skills. Unlike Kohl and Schröder, provincial machine politicians who had time to get acquainted with foreign policy, Merkel needed a crash course. She had only a year before Germany would simultaneously hold the chairmanship of the G8 and the European Union. Setting a different tone from Schröder was easy enough. His relations with George W. Bush were glacial. Hers were respectful, productive, but never more so. She lectured the U.S. President on the Guantánamo Bay penitentiary and physically recoiled when he got touchy with her at a summit meeting.

Where Schröder had been so cozy with Vladimir Putin he raised the hackles of skittish Poles and sticklers for democratic form at home and in Russia, Merkel made a point

of stopping in Warsaw on her way to Moscow—and once there of meeting representatives of the pro-democracy Memorial organization between sessions with Putin. Her willingness to upbraid the Chinese Communist regime comes straight from her own youth in Communist East Germany. It has cost her ministers many cancelled meetings with the Beijing regime, but folks love it at home.

“Germans have had, for 40 or 50 years, an

immense difficulty feeling proud,” the Merkel aide said in the chancellery building. “They’re not sure how to be proud without invading another country. Before, if you were proud about being German, you went into France.” Merkel gives Germans the novel feeling that they might dare to measure themselves at their right value—neither too bold nor too timid, but like Goldilocks’ porridge, just right. “People don’t think it’s bad if she upsets Mr. Putin,” the aide said. “Especially in the east.

‘If Mr. Putin looks cross, Frau Merkel must have said something that made sense.’ ” ^ Despite her willingness to be a genteel pain in some carefully selected butts, Merkel’s diplomatic success resides mostly in her ability to reduce the tension in a meeting room, not ratchet it up. Poland’s Kaczynski twins—Lech remains president, Jaroslaw’s party was defeated last month in parliamentary elections—spent two years stoking ancient resentments from the war years to score easy points at home. Merkel, whose eastern roots make her the most pro-Polish chancellor in her country’s history, responded by doing a slow burn and forbidding her own officials from responding in any way except cheerful optimism to the Kaczynskis’ baiting. The reward for thenpatience was the recent election of a more pro-European Polish government under Donald Tusk.

None of her diplomatic success will matter, of course, if Merkel fritters away Germany’s economic success at home. Most observers in Germany say that simply won’t happen. On largely symbolic fronts—a few more months of unemployment benefits for the elderly here or there—she gives a little, at a time when near-record employment growth and a world-beating export sector offer her room to give. On fundamentals she is intransigent. Only three years ago, Germany had a punishingly high business tax that encouraged a grey market of offshore branch-plant shell games. Merkel cut business taxes sharply, which gave more businesses an incentive to stay in the country and actually pay their taxes. She won’t roll that reform back. The departure of Münterfering proved that, while Merkel’s bottom line is lower than backseat drivers in newspapers outside Germany might like, she does have one.

She came from nowhere and beat the machine bosses. She has surprised Germany’s neighbours and survived the first major crisis in her coalition. German politics is exquisitely designed to ensure her job will never be easy. But Frau Merkel is not done demonstrating that she is nobody’s Mädchen. M