Angela Merkel: uncharismatic leader who dominates German politics

Despite the CDU struggling in the polls, Merkel remains popular and could win a third term as federal leader

In a newspaper article last year the philosopher Jürgen Habermas complained that modern Germany had a yearning for "charismatic figures who stand above the political infighting". But Germany may have to yearn for a while yet. The leader it must live with, for now, is the pragmatic but uncharismatic Angela Merkel. And she shows no sign of going any time soon.

Not that Merkel is having it all her way. Over the winter three subjects dominated German public life. The first was a book, Germany Abolishes Itself, in which the author, Thilo Sarrazin, denounced the effects of immigration and multiculturalism on his nation. The second was a railway station project, Stuttgart 21 – a focus for environmental protest. And the third was the young defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenbergand who seemed set to become the country's most admired public figure, perhaps even its next leader.

Three months on, the politician has gone; Guttenberg's career crashed in a plagiarism scandal. The Sarrazin book remains; a million copies sold, the biggest political bestseller in modern German history. The station is at the centre of the next state elections.

And Merkel still bestrides German politics. She dominates her centre-right Christian Democratic party. She has no effective rivals in government. Her party is 10 points ahead of others in national polls and she is by far the most popular politician in Germany, a clear favourite to win a third term as chancellor in two years' time.

"Merkel is very strong in her party," says Manfred Güllner, head of Forsa pollsters. "But her party is different. [It] is not so popular. It struggles to mobilise its voters."

In fact, the CDU is looking down the barrel of an electoral gun in seven state elections this year. In February the CDU was pitched out of power in Hamburg. Now it faces an uphill struggle in Bremen and Berlin. The biggest test comes on 27 March, when it fights to retain power in the prosperous conservative state of Baden-Württemberg, south-west Germany, (whose capital is Stuttgart) which Merkel's party has ruled without interruption, either alone or in coalition, since the 1950s.

How can both these things – Merkel's easy personal popularity and her party's increasingly difficult struggles to cling on to power – be true at the same time?

The answer lies in the nature of German political institutions, and in the polarisation of political attitudes, reflected in the response to Sarrazin's book on the one hand and the Stuttgart railway project on the other. But also it lies in the enigmatic political project being carved out by a chancellor who always keeps a picture of another formidably powerful German woman, Catherine the Great, on her desk in her Berlin office.

Merkel is today the most powerful politician in the most powerful country, with the most powerful economy, in Europe. On the European stage, as she is proving in the bid to stabilise the euro, she is the decisive figure. But you wouldn't know it by looking at her in Berlin. Most of the time she does her politics with a remarkably low profile, making relatively few public appearances. She delivers few speeches. She is rarely held to public account in ways that the British system thrives on. She works from behind a sort of invisible Berlin wall.

Overall, this is an important strength. Merkel commands a political system far less hyperactive than the British one. Much of the time German politics is stately; it's a stable political system in which challenges to the powerful are rare.

Take the example of the Libyan crisis. In Britain, the government's reactions have been minutely tracked and challenged in the media and parliament. In Berlin last week there was not the slightest echo of such arguments. Neither Merkel nor her coalition foreign minister, the liberal Free Democrat party leader, Guido Westerwelle, has faced significant scrutiny over Libya. The idea of a German crisis over Libya would strike officials as bizarre.

Outwardly, Merkel appears an unpretentious, pragmatic, leader with her feet on the ground. But the serene image masks a politician who has spent much time as chancellor consolidating her place in the CDU, removing rivals and forcing others out. The impression that she is good at relationships is belied by a quite large number of facts. In Europe, she has little time for Nicolas Sarkozy or Silvio Berlusconi, an opening the eurosceptic Cameron has been able to exploit.

Some see Merkel's inner toughness as the product of her remarkable rise from modest origins as a pastor's daughter in communist East Germany to become the leader of a party that stood originally for the commercial interests of the rich middle-class of the old West Germany. "She does not like the established CDU politicians, mainly businessmen, with their sense of entitlement," observes Constanze Stelzenmüller, of the Berlin-based German Marshall Fund.

Merkel's impatience with the CDU hierarchy's sense of entitlement evokes comparisons with Margaret Thatcher's contempt for the Tory high command in the 1980s. In any event, Merkel's control of her party can now be compared with the tight grip of Helmut Kohl a generation ago.

The most recent and most important of these cases is the fall of Guttenberg, a 39-year-old with an aristocratic bloodline straight out of the Almanach de Gotha and married to a von Bismarck to boot. But Guttenberg is now one of a number of notable CDU figures who have fallen by the wayside as Merkel has tightened her grip on the party.

The turnover in state leaderships has been striking. Horst Köhler, the federal president, stepped down. Axel Weber, head of the Bundesbank, was forced from office in February after displeasing her.

So what drives Merkel? As a woman in a party of men, a divorced protestant in a party based on the Catholic church, an easterner in a party controlled largely by westerners, and as a scientist in a party of financiers and business leaders, she is not an obvious fit with the CDU.

Yet it is hard to define "Merkelism". Here the analogy with Thatcher runs into the sand. Like most in her party, Merkel believes in the CDU as the ineluctable party of German government. She believes in being in power, in making things work, and is very good at it. But it is hard to pin down her views. "She doesn't light many people's fires," one official says.

Never forget, though, that at state level, in the eyes of local voters in the seven states which will hold elections this year, the CDU is not Merkel's party. It is the party led by the state premier. In the crucial case of Baden-Württemberg, it is Stefan Mappus's party. So it is state premier Mappus, not the federal chancellor Merkel, who will triumph or carry the can when the votes are counted in Baden-Württemberg in March.

Yet this explanation does not go deep enough. Germany, after all, is uniquely prosperous, indeed the richest country, among the nations of the EU. Its export-driven economy, though not out of the recessionary woods, looks set to grow at a healthy 3% this year. Unemployment, high in recent years, has just declined to its lowest level in 20 years. In Baden-Württemberg the situation is even better, with close to full employment.

All over Europe, governing incumbents have been punished for not doing a good enough job, or for simply being in power when the financial system collapsed in 2008. By rights, the voters in the regions ought to arrive at the polling stations and thank the CDU for navigating them through turbulent years virtually unscathed.

Yet the polls paint a different picture. German voters seem almost as unhappy as other Europeans and successful incumbents look vulnerable.

A recent poll in Baden-Württemberg showed the CDU on 40% of the vote and its liberal FDP partners on 5%, with the centre-left SPD on 26% and their potential coalition partners, the Greens, on 20%. These figures are worrying for the CDU, which often tends to do a bit better in opinion polls than at the ballot box.

Merkel is helped by her rivals. A more effective opposition than the SPD might knock her out of her comfort zone. But the SPD is split and has weak leaders; Merkel easily defeats them in poll match-ups as best chancellor. A stronger liberal FDP might cause jitters, taking votes from Merkel. Yet both languish in the polls. The latest Forsa poll for Stern magazine has the CDU on 36%, SPD 26%, Greens 16%, Left 10%, FDP 5%, and others at 7%.

Deeply tenacious, Merkel is clearly set on a third term, in 2013. "These state elections are not as important for Merkel's future as the press says," says Güllner. "Losing in Baden Württemberg would be a shock. But as long as the SPD don't have an effective alternative at federal level, Merkel will stay. She may still be chancellor in 2017."


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Angela Merkel orders safety checks on Germany's nuclear power stations

The chancellor is struggling and her Christian Democrats are facing a rough time in regional election this month

Helen Pidd in Berlin

14, Mar, 2011 @7:32 AM

Article image
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle not up to his job, say critics
Germany's answer to Nick Clegg lambasted as he struggles to make mark as junior partner in unhappy coalition marriage

Luke Harding in Berlin

17, Mar, 2011 @10:01 PM

Article image
Angela Merkel switches off seven nuclear power plants
German chancellor's safety move follows government halt over extending 17 ageing nuclear stations

Luke Harding in Berlin

15, Mar, 2011 @6:42 PM

Article image
German stereotypes: über-efficiency

They do work less and get more done than the British – but this productivity comes at the cost of rigid bureaucracy

Helen Pidd

18, Mar, 2011 @10:21 PM

Article image
German stereotypes: don't mention the war
Schoolchildren in Germany are taught the lessons from Hitler's days in power and most adults are quite ready to talk about it

Helen Pidd

17, Mar, 2011 @7:00 AM

Article image
German stereotypes: if there's a sign, they obey it
Yes, the pedestrian crossing man is sacred – along with recycling and a nice, quiet lunch

Helen Pidd

18, Mar, 2011 @12:51 AM

Article image
German finance minister says too many Gastarbeiter were allowed in

Wolfgang Schäuble enters multiculturalism row, saying problems of integrating Turkish guest workers have grown with third generation

Larry Elliott and Julia Kollewe in Berlin

18, Mar, 2011 @7:24 PM

Germany's future is Green | Cem Özdemir

Cem Özdemir: The German Green party has moved beyond the Birkenstock generation to prove itself on the biggest stage

Cem Özdemir

14, Mar, 2011 @10:00 PM

Article image
Angela Merkel claims German election victory

Chancellor on course to form coalition government with preferred allies, initial figures show

Kate Connolly in Berlin

27, Sep, 2009 @5:55 PM

Article image
Angela Merkel declares death of German multiculturalism

German chancellor's remarks, which claimed multiculturalism had 'failed utterly', interpreted as a shift rightwards from her previous views

Kate Connolly in Berlin

17, Oct, 2010 @7:27 PM