Merkel’s path to power: the political calculus of a scientist
Illustration: Tania Bischof

Germany’s reunification in 1989 marked the end for visions like those of Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, ideological leaders whose grand projects were ultimately doomed to fail. Trust became the new currency in politics. ‘Auferstanden aus Ruinen’ (Risen from Ruins) had been the title of East Germany’s national anthem – now, Germans were calling for a leader who could get the job done. Indeed, trust would become the defining asset of a character that entered the political world a month after the Berlin Wall came down: Angela Merkel. Ten years later, in the wake of the Great Recession and facing a possible bank run, Angela Merkel addressed the nation: “We are telling savers that your savings are safe.” No lengthy speeches, no utopian promises. And the Germans trusted their Chancellor – there was no run on the banks.

On November 22nd, Merkel will have held the office of Federal Chancellor for 15 years. What is it that made Germans put their faith in Merkel four times? Germans frequently refer to Merkel, who holds a PhD in quantum chemistry, as ‘Mutti’ (an East German phrase for mum or mummy). Originally a sexist and anti-East belittlement of Merkel, coined by former Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Michael Glos, the phrase long ago lost its denigrating meaning. ‘Mutti Merkel’ is associated with frugality, modesty, and responsibility. Perhaps it is the only way that Germany’s male-dominated political scene can accept a female leader: by viewing her as above daily political quarrels, a de-politicised and impartial mother figure. 

Of course, Merkel was not always ‘Mutti’. When she first stood for election in 1990, Helmut Kohl, who was Chancellor at the time, appointed her as Secretary of State for Women and Youth and became her mentor, referring to her as ‘Mein Mädchen’ (my girl). While Merkel was aware of the immense opportunity that came with Kohl’s support, she knew when she had to free herself from the restraints of patronisation: when the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was accused of receiving secret campaign contributions in 1999, Merkel wrote an open letter, calling for the party to denounce Kohl. Five years later, Merkel was elected Chancellor. Turning the sexism and belittlement she faced into a political recipe for success has been a crucial factor in Merkel’s strategy to gain the German electorate’s trust. 

‘Schadenfreude’- a term unique to the German language, describing pleasure derived from the misfortune of others – is certainly one way to describe Merkel’s road to political success. Throughout her career she has brought vain and power-hungry men to fall, always without putting herself in the spotlight. The 2005 elections followed Gerhard Schröder, Chancellor at the time, calling a snap election after losing a vote in Parliament. In the final hours of polling day, a false projection, predicting a victory for Schröder’s Social Democratic Party, led to calls for Merkel’s immediate resignation from CDU elites. It was Schröder’s arrogance and hubris that saved Merkel’s political career: in a TV show later that evening, his self-congratulatory and condescending comments earned him the name ‘Testosterone-Gerd’ by the German press, many believe to this day that he was under the influence of alcohol. 

Immediately after, all internal calls for Merkel’s resignation were dropped. The CDU could no longer afford to remain an opposition party: joining a coalition government and refuting Schröder under Merkel’s leadership was the only remaining option. She was elected CDU chair just two days later and became Germany’s first female Chancellor when the real results were announced. Since Merkel’s first cabinet in 2005, German political parties have lived in constant fear of her strategy of ‘Totkoalieren’ (which awkwardly translates to ‘death by coalition’): keeping her coalition partners in check by co-opting their policies whilst spreading responsibilities for political crises. 

After four years of a coalition government, the SPD suffered its worst electoral loss in the history of the Federal Republic in 2009. Those four years had moderated the SPD’s political stances so far that many of its working-class voters chose to stay at home when the party stood for election again. When the Free Democratic Party, the CDU’s closest competitor on the right at the time, took the place of the Social Democrats in Merkel’s coalition, they ended up making precisely the same mistakes. Merkel’s CDU pre-empted, moderated or blocked all reforms that could have strengthened the FDP’s political profile. All that remained was party-internal fragmentation and deadlock – in the 2013 elections, the FDP did not reach the 5% hurdle and lost all its seats in the Bundestag. 

Recall the SPD’s electoral loss in 2009? In 2017, after yet another coalition with the Christian Democrats, they shaved some more percentage points off their result to reach a new negative record. The Free Democrats had learned their lesson – after the election, FDP leader Christian Linder ended negotiations for a CDU-FDP-Green coalition with the words “it is better not to govern than govern badly”. Perhaps, the SPD should have taken a note out of Lindner’s book. After entering into a Grand Coalition once more, the Social Democrats plummeted in all national surveys to between 13% and 16% at the time of writing. Schröder in 2005 had catastrophically underestimated Angela Merkel. 

Merkel’s highest political value is compromise. The German paper ‘Die Zeit’ wrote earlier this year: ‘Merkel prioritises reaching a compromise over her own political positions – which are often not fully understood by anyone in the first place.” Merkel is a conservative. She opposes same-sex marriage, was a proponent of nuclear energy until 2010 and declared German multiculturalism failed that same year. But Merkel is also a scientist. She knows when her positions leave enough political space for her competitors to capitalise on them. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and following some years of Green politics seeing rapid popularity gains, Merkel immediately committed to shutting down all nuclear power stations by 2022. In 2015, she contradicted her interior minister, stating publicly: ‘Islam belongs to Germany’. 

Merkel’s politics of compromise and reading public opinion were exemplified in 2017, when she put the legalisation of same-sex marriage to a vote in Parliament, voting against it herself. Did revising her stances make her a liberal, even a Social Democrat at heart? Quite the contrary: where was her opposition meant to go after Merkel claimed ownership of some of the most important reforms of the last two decades? Merkel’s politics forced the SPD to move further to the left if it was to represent any meaningful opposition – a step many moderate Social Democrats would not take. With most of her competition divided, ‘Mutti’s’ popularity ratings skyrocketed.

If this is Merkel’s political calculus, why is her decision to keep German borders open to refugees stuck in Hungary, thus plunging Germany into its deepest political crisis in decades, so frequently attributed to humanitarian concern? Robin Alexander, in his best-selling book ‘Die Getriebenen’, explains how Merkel’s decisions between the 4th and 13th of September 2015 had little to do with Christian ethics and a sense of German ‘national duty’, but were instead a desperate attempt to avoid blame. Whether to ‘take a so legally controversial and so unpopular a decision’ as to close the borders would have kept oxygen away from Germany’s far-right – whether it would have saved the Christian Democrats’ the electoral embarrassment in 2017 is unclear. But the potentially horrifying pictures of violence between German police and refugees, including women and children, at a time where her internal competition was eager to contest the CDU leadership, was a risk Merkel was not willing to take. 

Alexander says his book is ‘neither a saintly story nor a tale of villainy’. Perhaps this is the only fair judgement of 15 years of Chancellor Merkel. Politics is rarely ethical and executive politics almost never is. Many of her choices were more indicative of a sober understanding of what was needed to not let the reins of government slip out of her hands than of political value statements.

The final verdict on the Merkel era is not spoken. Her government has handled the COVID-19 crisis exceptionally well and despite her having announced her gradual retirement from national politics, many are calling on her to run for a fifth term in office. Whether 2021 will mark the end of Merkel’s chancellorship or not, history should remember her not as ‘Mutti Merkel’, but as a scientist.