Angela Merkel – a forerunner who might win her battles at home

The Christian Democratic Union has obtained a stunning, unexpected victory in Germany’s last parliamentary elections – and it is clear that it was a vote of confidence in the financial policies of Prime Minister Angela Merkel.

Merkel is chancellor (PM) in Europe’s biggest economy and the only woman to head such a country with a population of around 80 million. Although the German welfare state has been under terrible pressure to reform itself into a system that can be sustained without ever more debts, Germany is still a country where life is good and where the idea that things could be better for the masses hasn’t been abandoned by a lazy elite. The recent campaign for the introduction of a minimum hourly wage of 8,50 euro proves that.

Sometimes critics of democratic party systems suggest that politicians in western countries nowadays live in a closed  world. It is hard if not impossible for outsiders to enter this world, they say, the access is limited to certain families, to graduates from certain universities, to people with lots of loyalty but no values etc. Especially the French are fond of this popular theory, who deep in their hearts probably actually regret that they have a state, with the inevitable  political class that comes with it.

In most western countries the parties, faced with huge losses in membership,  really do everything to attract new blood to fill thousands of political posts and therefore there are still spectacular newcomers – and even succesful new parties. Complaints about  certain shortcomings of democracy are justified but the system does really give power to individuals and groups that were excluded from the political class in for example feudal times or under dictatorships.

One of the most convincing examples for this fact is the rise of Angela Merkel. When the German parliament elected  her as Prime Minister in 2005, she was the first woman in Germany to conquer this post, the first professor of physics to lead the country, she was at age 51 the youngest who ever got this job and she was the first person from the former communist German Democratic Republic that was elected as Chancellor. Four records – or four reasons that might have doomed her to the margins of world history: woman, professor, young, Ossi*. Until months before the Fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989 she was a physics professor in East Germany, without anything resembling a political career.

 Merkel will add another four years to her life as chancellor also because her male rivals seemed expert in damaging themselves – and despite the fact that inside her own party an alliance of ‘males only’ was active who have conspired against her since 2002. The weekly Der Spiegel that over a decade ago revealed the existence of this males club striving to divide the most powerful jobs among them, recently wrote it has lost much of its influence. They still tried to damage Merkel but they had no candidate of their own to take her place after the elections. Says Der Spiegel.

 Angela Merkel has many qualities that fit a Prime Minister. She has a wonderful talent for creative compromise. Opposition parties don’t have to beg her to be heard: she calls their leaders when necessary. She has the courage to experiment, to fail and to start all over again, which betrays her scientific mind. “There is always more than one way to achieve a goal,” she has said repeatedly. She can take revenge without the victims noticing it. She knows how to deal with male vanity in politicians, even when his name is Nicolas Sarkozy, the former charming French president who kissed Merkel as if she was his lover and not Carla Bruni.

She looks on many problems as a kind of puzzle that should be solved, instead of a battlefield with unmovable fronts. She refuses to offer simple answers to complex matters and she will not claim the state can solve every problem within a short time.

 She adores German professionalism, which is the pillar of the ongoing German success story as an exporting country. Once, when she was asked to say what she loves about Germany, she said: “That the window frames don’t leak when it is raining.” I never understood this reply until I was removing the carpets during heavy rain in Erbil, with water coming in from all sides in the bedroom of a house built by British contractors and Kurdish and Turkish workers…

 In international politics, at negotiation tables, she is one of the few who gets up herself and walks over to the prime minister of a small country to discuss something – instead of sending over her advisor to do the talking. In a book on her style of governing author Margaret Heckel claims Merkel is the one who during the first waves of the financial crisis succesfully insisted on including representatives of emerging economies such as Brasil in the G20 summits.

 In line with a deep feeling running through all postwar German generations that was  first courageously expressed by the novelist Martin Walker, she thinks the vast majority of Germans are good democrats nowadays and shouldn’t be reminded all the time by the nazi past of their grand parents and forced to shut up when they want to criticize authoritarian trends in other nations. Selfconsciousness is not the same as arrogance. For sure, Merkel cannot be accused of acting arrogantly towards a head of any nation and she has the advantage of knowing what it means to live in the shadow of a ruthless superpower. Russian president Vladimir Putin therefore thought it was time to humiliate her when she visited Moscow. Merkel is afraid of dogs. When she entered Putin’s home, he let his black labrador jump up against her. God only knows what was said after this provocation, but she stayed.

 She spends a lot of time with journalists on her trips, holds press conferences as a daily or weekly duty. The media have nothing to complain except that she isn’t giving them many sparkling quotes or inspiring slogans (see below). But she will not hold a press conference at 8 on Monday  morning because the stock markets desperately want her to say something as soon as possible after weekend negotiations – she keeps them waiting until lunch hour. She was the first Prime Minister in the world to use Podcasts (short videos that can be downloaded also on mobile phones) to explain her decisions and she is probably also the first PM who developed her own website for kids.

She protects her private life with her husband – making him almost as invisible as Nouri Al-Maliki or Massoud Barzani make their wives. But in the first hours of her holidays with her husband she lets the press make some pictures. Unfortunately for them the holiday resorts have nothing glamorous and are the same every year. The holiday spots have a lot in common with the food Merkel serves in her offices to top managers of German multinationals, party chiefs and other giants: sauerkraut, potatoes and a piece of smoked pork meat – or if it’s late: a lentil soup. Once she told a class room full of kids: “It is one of the privileges of my position as Prime Minister that everything is done so that I can sleep most days in my own bed.” Presents for foreign hosts are modest: if a king, prime minister or president doesn’t have a particular hobby, he will receive from ‘Mutti Merkel’ (Mother Merkel) a top class German porcelain service.

 As a politician, Merkel lacks one quality that could become her undoing. Friend and foe agree on this: she is a lousy public speaker. She is not charismatic, she cannot fire masses with the kind of rhetoric others such as US president Barack Obama are famous for – and which many of Merkel’s rivals master, always ready to simplify things to energize political passions. On the other hand Merkel has the bad luck of operating in an international intellectual environment where no set of ideas has captured the imagination of millions and taken an intellectual lead. The whole world is waiting for the magic formula, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk wrote.

In modern communication strategies there is this theory that as a politician you have to be able to find the right “labels”, “stickers” for your policies or your goals. The problem is, if the politician doesn’t offer his or her labels, the enemy might find labels  that confirm a general impression in the public. And in the case of Angela Merkel her enemies have partly succeeded. They managed to put her on show as “Madame No” during one of the episodes in the Eurozone crisis. For some, she will always remain “Kohl’s girl”, the young woman that was promoted by former Prime Minister Helmut Kohl (despite the fact that she went against him later).

Merkel has five long term goals: modernize her party, the Christian Democratic Union; improve German education; build a new international financial system and export the German model of the capitalist social welfare state; respond to globalization and climate change; find solutions for the problem of an ageing German population combined with a low birth rate and emigration and immigration of huge numbers of people. How to put these matters into slogans? Merkel’s advisors don’t seem to have the creativity to fix this and she doesn’t neither. Merkel is a woman with a sharp intelligence for details but she cannot find the words for the big picture. Only her slogan ‘Germany – Education Republic’ seems to have entered the consciousness of the voters.

 Often it seems Merkel is actually saying: in the German federal system we share power, I cannot do it alone, and often when I fail to push through a reform, I am not to blame. French presidents and the national parliament in Paris can do things alone thanks to their centralized system of government. Merkel often criticizes the Prime Ministers or governments of the states that make up the federal republic of Germany. The federal structure was invented during the American occupation after the Second World War, to weaken the powers of ‘Berlin’, to have a break in the system in case  Berlin gets wild and enthusiastic to go to war again. Predictably, the ‘break’is used for completely different aims and remains one of the glaring imperfections of German democracy.

Merkel cannot also be blamed for the gradual loss of  votes for the two big parties: her Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party. To create a majority government, these parties often have to govern together. These “Grand Coalitions” lack a clear focus, clear direction. On one issue, the coalition looks leftwing, progressive, on another issue it seems reactionaries are alive and kicking again. To keep up the lie of unsurmountable differences, especially during election campaigns, issues that could be solved easily are stylised into highly symbolic matters of life and death, black or white, along old ideological front lines that society has abandoned. It is a phenomenon haunting the US and many governments in European countries. Not a single big party has found new answers to differentiate itself along real existing front lines in the battle for the division of wealth, social justice and responsibilities for the survival of society.

When Merkel got the offer of her fellow party leaders to become Prime Minister, she told one of them: “I am not sure whether I am conservative enough.” Perhaps Merkel (1954)  was simply born a few years too early. Such people are literally born losers, although  society needs such forerunners. Angela Merkel experiences the constraints not the delights of shared power while chasing after her longterm goals. She might the exception that doesn’t loose.

 * Since reunification Germans are divided in Ossies and Wessies. Ossies are originally from East Germany, Wessies from West-Germany.

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