Letter from Berlin Merkel Sitting Pretty Two Years Into Term

Halfway through her term, Angela Merkel's shrewdness, unpretentious "Hausfrau" image and sheer luck have made her more popular than any of her seven male predecessors were at this stage of the political cycle. She's likely to play it safe during the next two years, avoiding painful reforms.

No mid-term blues for Angela Merkel.

No mid-term blues for Angela Merkel.

Angela Merkel is more popular now than any German chancellor since the end of World War II, according to a new opinion poll which puts her mid-term approval rating at a record 76 percent. The figure is impressive because after a couple of years in office, leaders often see their popularity hit by by broken campaign promises and dashed hopes.

The poll by the Emnid institute for Bild am Sonntag newspaper showed that only 21 percent of respondents want a change of government. "Such positive ratings for a German government leader half-way through the term have never been recorded before," Emnid director Klaus-Peter Schöppner told the paper. "People admire how Merkel stands her ground in the world of Bush, Putin and Sarkozy."

After two years leading Germany, Merkel is as uncharismatic as she ever was, and her low-key style of government couldn't be more different from that of her media-savvy and vain predecessor Gerhard Schröder. Germans have evidently warmed to the sober, understated approach that almost lost her the 2005 general election.

There's nothing showy about her. One of the most enduring images of Schröder, taken by star photographer Peter Lindbergh, shows him posing in a "Brioni" cashmere coat for a fashion magazine.

Merkel's public image, by contrast, is best summed up by a chance snapshot taken of her in a central Berlin supermarket a few weeks ago by a fellow shopper. It was published in tabloid Bild Zeitung and shows her gathering up her groceries like any normal person rushing home after work. Her press office will have been delighted at this picture of Germany's hardworking, unpretentious leader.

Analysts say she owes her popularity to the combination of that ordinariness and her apparent skill at global diplomacy that earned her the title "Miss World" in the tabloid press after she hosted the G-8 summit in June.

"She's credible and people have faith in her, they like the way she handles herself in public," Bernhard Wessels, political scientist at Berlin's Free University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Luck and Cunning

But it's not just her image. A combination of pure luck and undeniable political cunning has helped boost Merkel's popularity.

Her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) are getting the credit for Germany's economic recovery over the last two years even though they have had little to do with it. The upturn, like most German booms, has been fuelled by surging world demand for just the type of goods Germany specializes in -- plant and machinery.

Painful welfare reforms enacted by the previous Social Democrat-led government in 2003 and 2004 are now helping to boost growth. Ironically, those welfare cuts are still sapping support for the SPD, which is failing to preserve its own left-wing identity in Merkel's consensus-driven "grand coalition" of CDU and SPD.

In fact, Merkel has avoided tackling reforms that would cause voters real pain. Keen to please voters ahead of important regional elections in 2008, her CDU has overtaken the SPD on the left with popular proposals such as higher benefits for families with children, higher unemployment benefits and more money for students.

As a result, the CDU remains just under 40 percent in opinion polls while the SPD is languishing at around 25 percent. "I don't understand this any more," said SPD leader Kurt Beck, perplexed at the conservative shift to the left. SPD Labor Minister Franz Müntefering recently demanded "a little more honesty from the conservatives."

SPD in Trouble

"The SPD is in a classic mid-term slump, voters seem to resent it for making compromises with the CDU," said Wessels. "In addition, Merkel has made a clever strategic move by embracing climate protection. That will appeal to left-wing liberal and environmentally-minded voters. There hasn't been much real reform, but most voters don't care about that anyway, they see the last round of welfare cuts under the SPD as the root of all evil."

Merkel's success means her position within the CDU is now unchallenged. Potentional rivals are fading, like Hesse premier Roland Koch, who faces a tough regional election in January, or Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber, who is stepping down in September after an internal party revolt against him.

Meanwhile the SPD is compounding its problems by quarrelling publicly over who should lead it into the 2009 election. Some in the party regard Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a gray but efficient troubleshooter, as a more suitable candidate than current SPD leader Beck, a bear-like, back-slapping old-school Social Democrat who has failed so far to make his mark on the party.

With Merkel's image as "Miss World" fading fast -- she handed the six-month presidency of the European Union to Portugal at the end of June and her one-year presidency of the G8 ends in December -- she is switching her focus back to domestic politics to carry her through to the 2009 general election.

Cabinet Conference to Set Agenda

She has called a cabinet conference for this Thursday and Friday in a baroque palace in the village of Meseberg, 70 kilometers north of Berlin, to discuss policy for the remainder of the government's term. Topping the agenda will be a 30-point climate protection plan that includes measures to boost energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources as well as cutting CO2 emissions from motor vehicles, industry, public buildings and private homes.

Some of the measures are unpopular with business leaders and energy consumers because of the cost increases they will entail, but Merkel reiterated in a weekend interview that she is serious about tackling climate change.

"We mustn't automatically regard every measure to protect the environment as a burden on the economy," she told Bild am Sonntag in an interview published on Sunday. "Doing nothing for the environment can cause enormous economic damage."

Other issues on the wide-ranging agenda at Meseberg include the social and labor market policy, a proposed employee fund allowing workers to have a share in company profits, controversial plans to protect German industry from foreign investors, Germany's mission in Afghanistan and whether to build a "Transrapid" magnetic levitation rail link for Munich airport.

Reliably Dull

The SPD for its part is pushing for a national minimum wage and is heading for at least partial success at Meseberg, where the cabinet is expected to agree to minimum rates for postal workers.

So what do the next two years hold for German politics? Based on Merkel's term so far, here's one prediction that may fill journalists with dread: No scandals, no emergence of any charismatic personalities, and no major reforms bar green policies and a bit of tinkering with the welfare system here and there. Opinion polls indicate that voters will reward Merkel for sparing them pain. So in 2009, she may well find herself at the helm of a another CDU-SPD coalition for another four years.

"At this point I don't know what is going to stop Merkel and we may well get another grand coalition," said Wessels. "It's a shame because grand coalitions aren't good for the political scene. You need the rivalry between the two large political camps to keep politics alive."


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