The World from Berlin: 'Merkel Is in Over Her Head'

The global financial crisis has caused some in Germany to give Chancellor Angela Merkel a closer look. Does her popularity belie a lack of crisis management skills? German commentators wonder whether Merkel's extended honeymoon with the public is about to end.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had a long couple of weeks.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had a long couple of weeks.

In addition to spreading hardship from Wall Street to Main Street, the global financial crisis has provided an opportunity for politicians the world over to test their mettle. Public opinion seems to have given good marks to the steady leadership shown by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown; the indecisive maneuverings of President Bush, by contrast, have caused his historically low poll numbers to sink even lower.

In Germany, the jury is still out. Certainly, Angela Merkel has enjoyed a long honeymoon with the German public. Since her election three years ago, Merkel has consistently ranked as the country's most popular politician, appealing to the public through her moderate political positioning and sincere demeanour. But, Merkel is hardly the Christian Democratic party's most prominent financial expert and the outbreak of the financial crisis has given rise to murmurs that as a crisis manager she's proven herself more a follower than a leader.

On Wednesday those criticisms rose to a crescendo after Merkel announced her unlikely selection to head a federal commission to re-design the country's financial regulation framework: Hans Tietmeyer, former chief of the national Bundesbank and member of the board of Hypo Real Estate bank, recent recipient of a €50 billion bailout. The SPD, Merkel's coalition partner, immediately protested the decision and Tietmeyer subsequently declined the post. Merkel was roundly criticized in Berlin for her tone deafness.

The left-leaning Tageszeitung writes:

"The decision to nominate Tietmeyer makes clear within Germany what has already long become clear outside of our borders: Angela Merkel has been an unfortunate manager of the financial crisis. First she was against a European bailout package, then she was for it. First she criticized the unilateral steps taken by Ireland, only to make precisely the same mistake by making savings guarantees that she hadn't cleared with neighboring countries."

"In this way, the Tietmeyer case has far-reaching implications. It could become a symbol for the disenchantment with Angela Merkel. Until now, governing was easy for the chancellor: the grand coalition suppressed the opposition and the economy boomed. Now, for the first time, Merkel is challenged -- and already in over her head."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Merkel displayed an unbelievable lack of instinct in nominating Tietmeyer for chair of the commission. No one contests that he's a leading expert of the financial markets. But, he's a lobbyist for these markets. How does Merkel want to explain to the country that the state is making half a trillion euros available to failing banks, while a representative of those banks helps craft the rules for the new international financial system? There's an old saying: when you want to drain the swamp, you don't ask the frogs for help. How true."

"Whoever believed that Merkel really does support Financial Minister Peer Steinbrück's efforts for a new regulatory system has now been shown to be mistaken. Merkel gambled with her credibility, and lost."

The business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The chancellor's greatest strength had been to communicate the government's plans to the public. But since the beginning of the current crisis, Merkel has caused unnecessary damage to herself and her governing coalition. By unilaterally selecting Hans Tietmeyer to head a financial commission, Merkel has unduly burdened her work with the SPD in the coalition. It is also a stain on her reputation for crisis management."

"In the best case, the chancellor didn't know the items on her nominee's resume. It's still an embarrassing blunder. It reminds us that politicians make mistakes -- even when it sometimes seems these days that only bank managers do."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"In her speech before parliament on Wednesday, Angela Merkel announced her intention to help fashion a more 'human' market system in the 21st century. It couldn't have gotten off to a worse start."

"There are worse things in life than screw-ups in personnel decisions. But the mistake has thrown a shadow over Merkel's crisis management, and that might have dire consequences. Suddenly all the questions are being aired that until now had been held back: How close is the working relationship between Merkel and her finance minister Peer Steinbrück? Who is going to dominate the spotlight as the most important of all the country's crisis managers? Are party politics again affecting political decisions? If the blame game continues, Merkel will have to put off her plans for a new financial market charter and focus on renegotiating the charter with her coalition partner."

-- Cameron Abadi, 1:00 p.m., CET

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