Angela Merkel’s dominance of German politics for well over a decade is a triumph of character rather than charisma, for competence rather than rhetorical flair.
And it is a triumph for political truthfulness in the supposedly post-truth era. Merkel has remained true to herself and come through.
Even in her diminished fourth victory, a large majority had confidence in the Chancellor: 81%, according to a Pew poll. This faith in Merkel’s leadership was matched by economic confidence: 86% said the economic situation was ‘good’.
Merkel campaigned in determinedly unrhetorical style. It was as if she was rejecting the pomp of Macron, the aggression of Trump, and the political hubris of Theresa May’s self-declared strong and stable leadership. The latter was a slogan Merkel might have used with some substance to it. But that would have been out of character.
Her campaign slogan was: ‘Fur ein Deutschland in dem wir gut und gerne leben’. English language commentators translate this as ‘For a Germany in which we live well and happily.’ The only flourish was the alliterative ‘gut und gerne’.
This low-key approach was enough to get her returned as Chancellor in a political environment that contained no serious threat to her position. Her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU) did face a threat, as did the other major mainstream party, the Social Democrats (SPD), from the far right, Alternative for Germany (AfD). But the extremists were never going to challenge for national leadership: getting 13% of the vote was Germany’s relatively mild (so far) version of the populist uprisings in the US, UK and France.
Nor did the SPD seriously challenge Merkel’s position, despite a brief surge in the polls when Martin Schulz became leader. Long before polling day it was clear that Schulz was not going to be the people’s choice.
One reason for Merkel’s ability to win in such under-stated style was that Germany had in effect ceased to have a real opposition, after a decade of the SPD sharing power with the CDU in Merkel’s ‘grand coalition’.
Gideon Rachman says in the Financial Times: ‘A fourth term in office is a personal triumph for Ms Merkel. But she has paid a price for her policies on refugees and the euro.’ https://www.ft.com/content/49adb73e-9fb7-11e7-9a86-4d5a475ba4c5 The AfD had, Rachman noted, been formed to protest at euro bail-outs, and had re-made itself as an anti-immigration party after Germany’s borders were opened to a million refugees in 2015.
That was a very personal decision by Merkel, in which she gave the impression of disregarding political calculation, acting instinctively, according to her own values.
She might instead have calculated and trimmed, pandered to the right and retreated in the face of populism. One can think of a large European country where this has happened recently under less courageous leadership.
The handling of the euro crisis and the Greek bail-outs was also grounded in Merkel’s values. It was unpopular to hand hard-earned German cash to Greece. She might have sniffed the political wind and taken decisions that put the stability of Europe at risk. But she acted according to her values.
The two strategic decisions that have defined her leadership were driven by her profound belief in Germany as the rock of stability in a united Europe, which was founded in her life’s experience as a child of the Soviet empire who came to preside over the leading democracy in Europe.
In an age of disbelief – of rage against politics, and the rise of fake leadership – Merkel has won a modest but valuable victory for strategic truthfulness.