The Merkel Paradox

By Jérémie Gagné | 4 December 2013

To quote this document: Jérémie Gagné, “The Merkel Paradox”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 4 December 2013,, displayed on 08 December 2022

On 22 September 2013, the German federal election was held in the very eye of a European storm. While people throughout the Eurozone were debating whether or not the visibly dramatic effects of fiscal austerity policy in Southern countries would eventually be outweighed by the long-term benefits of structural adjustment, indifferent Germans enjoyed the warm breeze of relative economic well-being on their way to the polls.

The misunderstanding...

It seems a perfect irony that presumably, the election was considered more crucial abroad than it was in Germany itself. After all, chancellor Angela Merkel had embodied the Neo-Thatcherite spectre of selfish power politics to more than a few Greek, Portuguese or Italian minds over the last three years. Conversely, on the more fiscally conservative side of the European spectrum, observers fancied the prospect of Madame Non being confirmed in office.

Meanwhile, Germans were completely unaware of what an ideological choice they were supposed to make in the eyes of their European neighbours. In fact, they had been experiencing one of the least polarized and most anaemic campaign periods in post-war history. It is telling that the Green Party’s proposal for a weekly “veggie day” in corporate cafeterias was among the more controversial issues of election summer. When casting their ballots, Germans did not see how much their vote mattered to others beyond the border.

Admittedly, there certainly is a vast majority of Germans that actually support Mrs. Merkel’s rigorous approach towards the crisis. While heavy investment programs or Keynesian-style deficit-spending do have their natural place in other countries’ economic toolbox, Germans have been culturally conditioned to shy away from potentially inflationary policies. To the average German mind, the only legitimate way out of a budgetary crisis is what the stereotypical “Swabian housewife” would do in times of economic trouble - spend less. In turn, policies aiming at quantitative easing, lower interest or anti-cyclical investment are considered overly statist, myopic, unreasonable. To put it simply, it is “what the French would do”. Thus, Germans’ self-idolatry as the guardians of sound fiscal policy whose own balanced budget is threatened by unreliable, notoriously debt-prone Southerners is more than mere national narcissism; it is deeply rooted in the country’s political genome.

Most Germans, however, do not consider Angela Merkel a conservative, paradigm-driven chancellor. This is precisely where the misunderstandings begin. To understand German politics these days, it is most important to realise that Merkel’s image inside the country has literally nothing in common with the tough right-winger feared and loathed by so many abroad. Instead, she is by far the most a-political, strategically centrist chancellor her country has ever seen since 1949.

A German kind of Gaullism?

The last time Mrs. Merkel led a truly Conservative, truly political campaign was in 2005. Back then, she eventually gambled away a tremendous lead in the polls against a social democratic incumbent who knew how to rhetorically take apart her radically liberal economic reform agenda. Instead of winning - as predicted - a clear right-wing majority in parliament, Merkel had to negotiate her first Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats. Ever since, the Christian Democratic leader has done her best not to lose control of the political centre again.

For this purpose, Merkel has profoundly re-configured the concept of German chancellorship. Traditionally, the head of government is given the prerogative to actively shape both international and domestic policy, a principle enshrined in the constitution under the term of “Richtlinienkompetenz” (lit: guideline competence). While obviously still playing a dominant role in European and international policy, Merkel has silently achieved to withdraw from the muddy battlefield of domestic policy. For instance, it is very unlikely to ever hear the chancellor intervene in a heated debate on social security in Germany. Instead, she will patiently wait in the background as long as her proxies are busy quarrelling with the opposition. Eventually then, she will have some moderate compromise negotiated and adopted. To achieve such a presidential aura of domestic neutrality, Merkel has willingly abandoned numerous edgy, Conservative positions of her party. If a pill, such as the rights of homosexual couples, seems too hard to swallow for the few remaining right-wingers in her entourage, the chancellor may still count on the Constitutional Court to rule on the issue before she even has to pick a side.

Public perception of the chancellor as a prudent and pragmatic broker lies at the very core of her high popularity. Unsurprisingly, Merkel’s electoral campaigns of 2013 and 2009 intended - and did so successfully - to squeeze her opponents to death in a centrist embrace. By avoiding any clear-cut profile and selling a method of government rather than an agenda for government, the Christian Democrats followed the principle of “asymmetrical demobilisation”, i.e. keeping social democratic voters away from the polls by blurring traditional policy cleavages.

It’s not about policy, stupid!

Meanwhile, the main opposition of Social Democrats and Greens led a policy-based campaign - and massively failed to even come close to a common victory on election day. In the case of the SPD, an ambitious left-of-centre agenda (more anti-cyclical Eurocrisis policies included!) suffered from a lack of credibility due to the rather conservative image of candidate Peer Steinbrück, formerly a fervent supporter of Gerhard Schröder’s controversial labour market reform. The Greens, on the other hand, gradually lost half of their vote share from mid-term polls by running on a left-wing, higher-taxes-for-the-rich programme that scared away the more affluent and bourgeois part of their post-materialistic electorate.

On election evening, with Merkel’s unfortunate liberal democratic coalition partner underneath the five-percent threshold and the red-green opposition reduced to one third of votes only, her CDU/CSU alliance came close to an absolute majority of seats (42 per cent of votes). It was telling to what extent the chancellor was visibly afraid of such a landslide victory on television that evening, and to what extent she eventually seemed relieved when news spread her party had missed majority by a handful of seats. Governing by oneself may be the dream of any ordinary political leader, yet it certainly is a nightmare for Angela Merkel. To fully master her art of somehow transcending the dirty business of politics, to put herself above the profanities of the party system, the chancellor imperatively needs a coalition partner. For political quarrel must be contained at the level of her parliamentary proxies, and must never break out between herself and her party. Since 2009 for instance, the Liberal Democrats had done a perfect job providing proposals for tax cuts which CDU/CSU representatives could then theatrically reject while Merkel herself was busy keeping the Euro alive.

New coalition - new Merkel?

As it seems now in early December, Mrs. Merkel will soon once again be elected chancellor of a Grand Coalition of Christian and Social Democrats. With negotiations on the coalition treaty completed, the last major hurdle remaining is the ratification vote within the SPD. An approval is very likely given the numerous concessions to social democracy in the coalition agreement: although Merkel’s Conservatives won the elections by far, they gave in regarding the introduction of a minimum salary, double citizenship and earlier retirement under certain conditions.

So far, however, all of Mrs. Merkel’s coalition partners suffered disastrous electoral defeats four years after their respective alliances with the Christian Democrats had been sealed. In 2009, the Social Democratic Party was reduced to a historical low of 23 per cent; in 2013, voters even threw the Liberal Democrats out of parliament. There is little doubt that Angela Merkel will attempt once again to subtly put her coalition partners on the losing end by following her presidential logic of centrist de-politicisation. What is more uncertain, is whether or not Social Democrats have learned from their past experience with Merkel.

If they succeed strategically, they will push the chancellor into taking a stand at the domestic level. If they succeed philosophically, they will make her more open to compromise in Europe. Their task must be to narrow the gap between German Merkel and European Merkel.

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Illustration credits: "Angela Merkel, German Federal Chancellor, speaks with the media right after her arrival at the European Council, 9 December 2011" on Flickr, last accessed on 1 December 2013; "Prime Minister and Chancellor Merkel" on Flickr, last accessed on 1 December 2013.