Angela I., Part II
Chancellor Angela Merkel famously displays upon her desk a framed picture of an 18th century princess from the German East who journeyed far from home to subdue a court teeming with dangerous rivals, and from there to rule an alien empire: Catherine the Great. Being an Empress in that dark era held undeniable advantages. One did not have to seek regular approval from one's unwashed subjects, and one could, well, dispose of opponents in ways that are generally frowned upon in a parliamentary democracy. Angela Merkel, by contrast, has outdone her model by winning her country's highest ruling office not once but twice in general elections, most recently this Sunday. Her opponents appeared to conveniently self-destruct under her benign and distant gaze; and she now even has a new political consort in the form of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), led by Guido Westerwelle. If this were a Shakespearean history play, its title would be"Angela the First, Part II." Its topic, as in all royal dramas: Power, its Triumphs and its Pitfalls.
To gauge the epic possibilities of Part II, a synopsis of Part I is in order. Angela Merkel, an East German Protestant divorcée and leader of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDUs), became Germany's first female Chancellor in 2005-after a campaign that she nearly lost because she spoke truth to the electorate about the need for drastic economic and social welfare reforms. Her honesty melted away a sizable lead in the polls; in the end, she scraped into victory over the Social Democrat (SPD) incumbent by exactly one percentage point. The inevitable consequence was a political marriage of convenience: a grand coalition with her erstwhile opponents of the SPD. It was plodding and unattractive, but, in fairness, it appeared to work. As grand coalitions tend to, however, it led to lowest common denominator policies and nourished the opposition. On election night this year, it became clear that the CDU's embrace had also nearly drained the lifeblood out of the SPD. From the outset, Merkel had cannily moved her party into the center of the political stage, thereby squeezing the Social Democrats against the Left Party. But the SPD's 11.2 percent drop to 23 percent of the vote, its worst result ever and the steepest drop between two elections ever, was a disaster beyond any pundit's imagination.
September 27, 2009 will indeed go down in history as a night of negative records, with double-digit wins for all three opposition parties (the Liberals, the Greens, and the Left), the worst-ever results for the CDU's Bavarian sister party CSU, as well as Germany's lowest-ever voter turnout (70.8 percent, down 6.9 percentfrom 2008). It will also be remembered as the night in which Germans understood that the political landscape they had grown up with had changed irrevocably. Yet, what matters to Angela Merkel is that she has triumphed and can rule again, all this with the pro-business Liberals, the political partner of her hopes-even if, at 33.8 percent for the Christian Democrats and 14.6 percent for the Liberals, her mandate is slimmer than she might have wished. But she is helped-for now, at least-by the fact that her center-right coalition currently holds a slight majority in the Bundestag, the second chamber of the federal legislature, which has extensive co-decisionmaking powers and can cause massive gridlock when majorities in both chambers are not aligned. Wish fulfillment is, of course, the classic stuff of drama; and, sometimes, of tragedy.
Merkel's second victory thus raises a fascinating question: Will she revert to her former liberal persuasions, and pursue genuine economic and social reforms? Might she even make German foreign policy more forceful and responsible? After all, this is a woman who in 1999 committed political patricide against her mentor, the conservative titan Helmut Kohl: a feat of daring which shocked all the other"grandsons" of the CDU into awed submission, and which laid open the route to power for her-first to the party leadership and, in 2005, the chancellorship. At a party convention in Leipzig in 2003, she held a flaming reform speech, and ran her first election campaign on the same uncompromising terms. As for foreign policy, in her first weeks as chancellor, she carefully reassured the European Union, East Europeans of Germany, and NATO, of her support and loyalty. Later, she had no reservations about telling off the Russian leadership (or the Americans, for that matter), or meeting with Russian nongovernmental organizations and the Dalai Lama. Angela Merkel, some observers hope, is a she-wolf who was forced, reluctantly, to pull on a sheepskin of political expediency when faced with the Social Democrats as partners in government for the next four years-and now can't wait to throw it off.
The doubters of this theory point to the fact that Merkel opportunistically-some would say ruthlessly-dropped old allies before the 2005 election when it became clear that her reformist zeal might cost her the chancellorship. They note that in the last four years Merkel rarely fought back against her SPD partners, and ended up accepting proposals (like the minimum wage) that had to be anathema to her principles. She seems happiest, they add, when able to act as the moderator between conflicting positions-and least comfortable when she has to act decisively in the face of party or popular reluctance. For evidence, look no farther than the September incident where German troops bombed two fuel trucks highjacked by the Taliban in Kunduz, killing dozens of civilians. It led to a Bundestag debate-and Angela Merkel's first government policy statement on Afghanistan in four years. Many, including those in positions of military leadership, wished that she had defended the mission this forcefully much earlier on in her tenure. Other evidence might be found in the fact that Merkel dithered through the first months of the economic crisis, sacrificed climate change goals to protectionist economic measures, left the shaping of energy policy (and with it, Russia policy) mostly to the"Big Four" energy companies. Even more oddly, after fostering an almost maternal bond with former U.S. President George W. Bush, she took what seemed like months to establish a good working relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Merkel, who does few things without careful deliberation, laid out a broad trail of signs in her television appearances on election night. Wearing a bright red jacket, she emphasized her close relationship with the trade unions, and praised the achievements of the social welfare state. (She made it clear later that there would be no shifts on the health fund as well as the minimum wage, both opposed by the FDP). Guido Westerwelle, visibly elated by victory, nonetheless watched her carefully-and said nothing. Merkel, added-just in case anyone had missed the point-that she wished to be the chancellor of all Germans, with the CDU as the"great popular party of the middle."
Enthralled viewers asked themselves whether this was an announcement that the chancellor intended to govern as a Social Democrat in her second term (noting that red is the color of the SPD), or a statement of reassurance to voters, akin to the dentist's"this will just take a minute and it won't hurt at all." It is probably too soon to tell; then again, the economy may force the government to choose sooner than it wants. Germany has had its share of green shoots recently, including drops in the unemployment rate. But some of that has been due to protectionist measures like the"cash-for-clunkers" scheme, short-term work contracts (Kurzarbeit), or the Opel deal. The first has already run out, the second will run out soon, and it remains quite unclear whether salvaging Opel will work. Add massive overcapacities in the auto industry and sharp drops in manufacturing orders, and it becomes obvious that Germany's new government might well find itself faced with an economic crisis again-and with it, the necessity for difficult choices. Its options, however, are limited: Germany's currency is European; there is a constitutional ceiling for the national debt; and as for the last remedy, raising taxes, both the Christian Democrats and the Liberals promised in the election campaign to do the opposite. Moreover, the window of opportunity for painful choices is narrow. Next May, the populous mining and industrial state of North-Rhine-Westphalia will hold elections. If the incumbent governor, Christian Democrat Järgen Rättgers loses, Merkel and Westerwelle will no longer have the majority in the second chamber of the federal legislature-meaning that whatever they do before May, they must do with a velvet hand.
"Angela I., Part II" will see a ruler who dislikes making hard choices having to do just that-if not on the economy, a multitude of other issues await, Afghanistan not the least among them. The curtain has just risen.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.