The enraged citizen can rest easy, because Angela Merkel is here. She takes care of things. She is making sure that one of the great wishes of our time is fulfilled: The wish for the involvement of citizens in decision-making -- that is, the desire for direct democracy.
The Germans are currently living in the most direct democracy since the Greeks convened regularly to discuss the affairs of state, about 2,400 years ago. This much effort is not even necessary for the Germans. Their chancellor simply gauges the popular mood and acts accordingly. There could be no more comfortable way of being governed.
Merkel is now in the sixth year of her chancellorship. It has gradually become clear how she is running this country, and it is time to give it a heading, a motto. The choice is obvious: The soft chancellorship. The current body of evidence includes her policies on Libya and nuclear energy.
'We Have a Representative Democracy'
In an off-the-record conversation, strictly confidential and not to be quoted, Merkel said something interesting last week. But it's a sentence that simply has to be repeated, because it sounds so strange coming out of her mouth: "We have a representative democracy." The chancellor actually said this, between 4 and 5 p.m. in Berlin last Thursday.
Merkel's words are squarely rooted in the German constitution, which holds that citizens elect their politicians and that in the time between elections the politicians are in charge. But Merkel's actions contradict this principle. She has secretly introduced direct democracy, and the natural consequence is the soft chancellorship.
Germans do not necessarily welcome chancellors taking a more rigid approach. In a democracy, policy emerges from debate and the exchange of views. An early "basta," or "enough," stifles this process, as does the phrase "there is no alternative." Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder lumbered through German politics with "basta," an Italian word, underscoring his tendency to end drawn-out debate with quick, firm decisions.
Merkel's phrase, ironically enough, has been "there is no alternative." There should always be an alternative in a democracy, and no one knows this as well as the chancellor. The alternative to Merkel's policy usually comes from Merkel. She is a woman without a foundation, a wonder of agility.
A brief history of her tenure in office reveals how she began as a woman who lacked the confidence to implement her ideas of social reform. The public mood did not favor reform, while surveys and studies indicated that the people were more interested in fairness. Oskar Lafontaine, then the leader of the leftist Left Party, spurred Merkel on with leftist rhetoric, and Merkel assiduously handed out gifts to placate her potential critics. Special attention was paid to retirees, whose anger was particularly feared.
A Policy of Not Mentioning It
Although she supported the German military mission in Afghanistan whenever it came up for its annual review in parliament, she did her best to downplay the issue in the interim. The majority of Germans are opposed to the mission, and no one is likely to score any popularity points by supporting it. But a withdrawal would have destroyed Merkel's credibility with Germany's American ally Instead, she pursued a policy of not mentioning issues unpopular with the public.
But then came Libya. The eastern part of the North African country rebelled against one of the worst dictators of our time, and a civil war erupted in which the rebels soon found themselves on the defensive. Massacres seemed imminent.
Merkel, recognizing the possibility of offering her people an alternative to herself ahead of key elections in the southwestern states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, did not opt for a clear decision but for a bizarre, lurching approach instead. She was against the use of German aircraft in the Libyan war, but instead of voting against a resolution to approve a no-fly zone over Libya in the United Nations Security Council, she had Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle abstain from the vote, which isolated Germany in the West.
At the same time, she is in favor of German ground troops becoming involved in the Libyan war zone in the context of humanitarian missions by the European Union. Her approach is hard to understand. The only possible explanation is that Merkel is trying to please everybody, both the war-weary Germans and Germany's allies. There is no evidence of a clear position or a foundation -- unless one is willing to accept the notion of a shifting sand dune as a foundation.
Through the Eyes of a Scientist
But there has to be something, a platform that Angela Merkel uses as the basis for her policies. Does she act as a Christian? No. Religion does not play a significant role for Merkel, who tends to espouse a biologistic worldview when it comes to life questions. As a woman? Sometimes, but a quota for women in the workplace goes too far for her. As a conservative who, after all, is the chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has a conservative core? No. Conservatism plays no role whatsoever. As an East German? Not an issue for Merkel. This leaves only one possible position, that of the scientist. This was long seen as her core: Merkel, the physicist who pursues policy with a scientific eye.
She demonstrated that in the first half of 2007. Scientists had just unveiled alarming statistics on climate change. Merkel the scientist reacted immediately, with figures, charts and talk of the irrefutability of the science behind climate change. She became the climate chancellor, which was popular, because the prospect of massive storms and heat waves seemed so scary. Merkel was in her element, and she pursued popular policies that also happened to be rooted in science. The transition to cleaner energy became her cause, as she advocated turning away from coal and oil and toward wind power and biofuel.
But this verve didn't last very long. When the price of oil rose in the summer of 2008, Merkel became concerned that Germans would be put off by even higher energy costs if she were resolute in her implementation of the energy transition. The issue soon faded into obscurity. The scientist in her was overshadowed by the populist.
Dropping Nuclear Power
And now it's happening again. When she heard the news about Fukushima, she abandoned nuclear power in next to no time, but without making her decision clear to the public. As in the case of Libya, Merkel's new approach to nuclear energy was one of staunch indecisiveness. She achieved a moratorium for seven older nuclear power plants and appointed an ethics commission to discuss the nuclear phase-out and come up with clear policy statements for Merkel. This, too, occurred just ahead of the elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The Germans, the populist in Merkel reasoned, could no longer tolerate nuclear power.
And what does Merkel the physicist, the scientist, say? From a physical point of view, nothing has changed as a result of the Fukushima disaster. The laws of nuclear fission haven't changed, and there has always been talk of a residual risk -- except that Merkel used to feel that this residual risk was acceptable. She considered it acceptable for mankind to live with the prospect of a catastrophe like the one that has now unfolded in Fukushima. It was a valid position. But now she cannot simply wipe it away and forget about it, particularly after having actively pursued the extension of nuclear power plant operating licenses only a few months ago, which amounts to extending the residual risk for Germany.
Merkel reacted somewhat flippantly and nonchalantly to questions on the subject last week, saying that those who have always been against the nuclear program ought to be pleased. It so happens that a new era has begun, she added, and that it's time to look forward and embrace the new mantra: change, change, change. Merkel now insists that she is excited about the transition to clean energy, and that it's really happening now -- honestly, scout's honor.
An Intellectual Disappointment
This chancellor is becoming an intellectual disappointment. Of course, a person can change her mind. Sometimes it's even necessary. But anyone who has had to change his position, especially on such existential issues as war and nuclear power, knows how difficult and painful it is, and how much self-doubt it creates. But Merkel simply falls over and carries on in a prone position. We should be able to expect far more, intellectually speaking, from a chancellor who proudly calls herself a scientist. Now is the time for the chancellor to offer great explanations and thoughtful remarks about herself.
The only problem with this scenario is that Merkel recently suggested that she doesn't really take science all that seriously, after all. When it turned out that Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had plagiarized a large portion of his doctoral thesis, Merkel scoffed that she had appointed Guttenberg to be her defense minister, not her academic research assistant. After that, Germany's universities had a pretty good idea of how they ought to feel about this former professor.
Turning away from nuclear power is the right decision, but the credibility of the players is also important in political processes. Merkel has turned dropping issues into a political stance and the about-face into a form of locomotion. Some might even accuse her of lying. A few months ago, she said that no nuclear power plant would remain in operation for longer than necessary. Now it is fairly certain that the life spans of older reactors will be reduced. Was necessary not really necessary? The longer life spans were also a welcome gift to the electric utilities, which were making money hand over fist with their old nuclear plants.
A Determination to Be Resolute
Merkel actually uttered the word "resolutely" last week, when she said that she would now resolutely pursue the energy transition. But who can believe her anymore? What happens if the oil price continues to rise, if the Arab crisis and the energy transition cause the prices of electricity and gasoline to skyrocket and people begin to grumble? Judging by the short history of her rule, it's easy to question whether perseverance is a trait one should expect from the chancellor. And those who question are unlikely to follow.
Why is Merkel the way she is, and why does she exhibit this tendency toward a soft chancellorship, without a strong claim to leadership and without a foundation?
Four reasons stand out.
She has a structural disadvantage that one cannot hold against her, a disadvantage Germans from the former East Germany have when they attempt to prevail in a world dominated by Germans from the former West Germany. Many western Germans do not accept a politician's years in East Germany as a positive grounding. Indeed, those years are subject to doubts and suspicions. For Merkel, this means that she lacks 35 years that could give her a stronger sense of a security in a political world dominated by western Germans. Chancellors like Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder often used their origins -- as children of the war who grew up in moderate circumstances -- to justify their policies. This enabled them to garner the sympathies of the majority of Germans. This option isn't available to Merkel.
In off-the-record conversations with journalists, there is a pattern to Merkel's reactions to especially critical questions. First she tells the interviewer that she can certainly understand his point of view and that she has no intention of depriving him of his opinion. She pacifies and embraces before she responds. Merkel, who can also be tough and aggressive in dealing with other politicians and staff members, has a strong desire to be seen as agreeable when interacting with the public.
A True Direct Democracy
The third reason is her view of the Germans -- of us. For her, governing Germany is not akin to riding a tiger but to riding a deer. In Merkel's view, we are a nervous, anxious people who constantly need reassurance. From her perspective, we are afraid of war, afraid of nuclear power, afraid of tax increases, afraid of social cuts and afraid of high energy prices. The question is whether or not this is true. We have remained relatively calm throughout the many crises of the new millennium. Perhaps our politicians simply have to explain their policies well so that we will follow their lead.
The fourth reason is banal. Merkel likes governing this way, because she likes her job as chancellor. She wants to remain in power for a while longer, which is why she prefers not to risk incurring the wrath of large segments of the population.
As a result, she is sharing power by introducing an informal form of direct democracy. Her concept is to govern on the basis of imaginary referendums and opinion polls. And everyone is playing along. Germany in 2011 is a nation of 82 million chancellors. It's the most direct form of direct democracy.