By Christoph Schwennicke
Angela Merkel is on a plane flying over the Black Sea. The German chancellor is on her way to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, but a curious mood pervades the flying conference room. The dimensions are somehow off. The seats are too small and people are perching uncomfortably on armrests. The temperature in the plane keeps changing -- it is always either too warm or too cold, but never quite comfortable. The aircraft is too crowded, so that journalists are forced to either sit on the floor or uncomfortably close to Merkel on a gray sofa.
Merkel tends to be slightly clumsy and it often takes her a little longer than usual to get things under control. Today is no exception. She fumbles with the microphone, then blows into it, taps it and, finally, when none of this seems to do any good, holds it up to her ear and listens, as if it were a loudspeaker.
"Okay, now it's working," she says, her voice coming from the speakers in the cabin.
It is Aug. 14, and Germany's parliamentary election is exactly 44 days away. The unpredictable phase of the campaign is about to begin.
Merkel lacks a direct rival. For her, the campaign has consisted and continues to consist in avoiding making mistakes and, as if she were armed with a rhetorical fire extinguisher, spraying extinguishing foam over everything the rival center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) puts forward until there is nothing left in sight but a white pile of foam.
Judging by the current state of affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD candidate and her main opponent in this election, poses less of a threat to Merkel than the economic crisis and doubts within the ranks of her own party. Merkel has what former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously called an "enemy within" and an "enemy without."
Her external enemy is the global economic crisis. Her internal enemy is her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), prominent members of which have been making unfavorable comparisons to past CDU leaders, such as the venerable former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. "At least Helmut Kohl paid more attention to the party," they hiss.
Her job, in this campaign, is to make it clear to people why she should remain chancellor. She had set out to be the chancellor who balanced the German national budget. Not only has she failed in that endeavor, but now Merkel will be remembered as the chancellor who caused Germany to have the biggest national debt of its history.
The financial crisis, which expanded into a global crisis, was not Merkel's natural element. She has a poor understanding of the underlying issues, and her scientific mind -- she is a physicist by training -- seems to have failed her when it comes to understanding the crisis, which has more in common with alchemy than chemistry.
Not Spontaneously Courageous
Political turmoil, disorder and revolutions are anathema to Merkel. On a Wednesday in August, she is standing on a lawn in the Hungarian town of Sopron. It was here that, exactly 20 years ago, Hungarian border guard Arpád Bella allowed more than 600 East German refugees to push their way through an old gate and into neighboring Austria -- a key event in the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Standing next to Bella in a white tent, Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, keeps repeating the same sentence: "I wouldn't have had the courage to do what you did back then."
She had observed the incident from afar, oblivious to the fact that what was happening in Sopron would one day make it possible for her to become the German chancellor. At the time, she was asking herself why her fellow East Germans were abandoning everything they owned to run up against a wall that, by all accounts, was destined to come down soon. Merkel took a wait-and-see approach instead, ending up with the same freedoms as those East German refugees, but without suffering the same personal losses.
"I am not spontaneously courageous," Merkel once confessed to her biographer, Evelyn Roll. "I do believe that I am courageous at critical moments," she said, "but I need quite a lot of time to prepare myself, and I try to think about things as much as possible before acting. I am not spontaneously courageous. I'm too rational."
Forced to Act
In private, she sometimes refers to the turmoil brought on by the debacle in the financial markets, which suddenly posed a threat to her chancellorship, as "all that shit," using the English expletive. But it was a threat brought on by the very spirits she had once summoned herself. For instance, the 2005 coalition agreement with the SPD, on which her current government is based, calls for an "expansion of the securitization market." And in her former role as opposition leader, she wanted to "keep developing the market for private equity." She also believed that the government was keeping the financial services industry on too short a leash.
During her first three years in office, the Merkel administration was relatively sedate and uninspiring. Instead of embarking on ambitious programs, she seemed more interested in holding on to power and doing the bare minimum.
In those three years, she became adept at concealing herself: behind constraints, behind the SPD, behind God knows what. Then the crisis erupted, and Merkel was forced to take action.
Since then, she has become a chancellor engaged in a battle with both the crisis and her party -- and fighting for her job. Ultimately, it all comes down to the same thing.
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