The Enemy Within Angela Merkel's Fight to Hold on to Power

Angela Merkel's main opponents during the election campaign were the economic crisis and her own party.
AP

Angela Merkel's main opponents during the election campaign were the economic crisis and her own party.

By Christoph Schwennicke

Part 2: Stumbling Around in the Dark


At the CDU convention in Stuttgart on Dec. 1, 2008, Merkel had not yet gotten that far. She had not yet figured out her approach to the crisis. She was anxious and insecure, like someone stumbling about in the dark, and yet it was important to her not to let anyone notice. She had just appeared before the German parliament, the Bundestag, where she made a government statement on the financial crisis. Anyone listening to her speech, which was marked by a faltering delivery and a lack of content, couldn't have felt overly confident in her ability to confront the crisis.

Standing in Stuttgart's convention center, Merkel told her internal enemy -- in the form of thousands of CDU members -- how she planned to fight the external enemy. "Our results are impressive," she said, but no one applauded, not even when she went on to say, boldly: "The boom of recent years was used to bring us very, very close to a balanced budget."

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Photo Gallery: Angela Merkel - A Different Light on the Candidates

Again, there was no applause. Suddenly Merkel seemed very alone, up there on the huge stage. It was cold in the room already and the temperature only seemed to drop further as she continued.

"Very, very close," she had said. But being close to a target is not the same as reaching it. Her audience already suspected that Germany would soon find itself very, very far away from a balanced budget.

Strangely Detached

Then, in her New Year's address, Merkel uttered a peculiar sentence: "If, in the coming year, we all throw our weight behind something that is near and dear to us, things will get even better for all of us."

She still seemed detached from the crisis. During the weeks before and after Christmas, Merkel experienced the hardest period of her political life. She had not yet come up with a plan to present to the people, a German approach to coping with the crisis. Meanwhile, she was coming under growing pressure to act from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, both in videoconferences and in public.

The Anglo-Saxon model, despite having failed miserably, still set the tone. To Merkel's annoyance, the market was being talked about as if it were a person: The market wants this, the market demands that, the market is reacting nervously.

Within the CDU leadership, most of Germany's CDU governors looked on as she floundered, not lifting a finger in support of her and her efforts to develop an economic stimulus package and a program to rescue ailing banks. Time and again, Merkel experienced just how alone she is in within her party. For that reason, success was her only guarantee of survival.

During this period, she endured being the target of unending acts of malice. In their videoconferences, Brown tried to win her support for his proposal to reduce the rate of value-added tax, a tax which is applied in Britain and Germany and which is similar to sales tax. Her own party favored extensive tax cuts, despite the fact that such cuts were unaffordable.

Being Her Own Boss

On a Monday morning, Jan. 26, Merkel was attending an event in the lobby of the Chancellery to commemorate the 90th anniversary of women's suffrage in Germany. Female politicians and intellectuals, such as Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen and the prominent German feminist Alice Schwarzer, were posing on the steps of the Chancellery for a group photo when Merkel approached.

Merkel giggled as she chatted with the women. When Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries was asked whether she preferred working for the patriarchal former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder or Merkel, she replied that it ultimately doesn't matter whether one's boss is a man or a woman. The important thing, she said, "is to have as few bosses as possible." Merkel clearly liked what she heard and clapped her small hands together excitedly. She was doing her best to make sure that she could continue being her own boss.

On the next day, Jan. 27, Merkel announced the biggest economic stimulus package in postwar German history, a program that would plunge the country into massive debt. In doing so, she was sacrificing what had previously been the main goal of her chancellorship -- to achieve a balanced budget by 2011 -- for the sake of fighting the crisis. The new programs came with a steep price tag: €50 billion ($74 billion) for the economic stimulus package, €100 billion for loan guarantees to German companies and €480 billion to help troubled banks.

At 1 p.m., Merkel issued a statement to the press at the Chancellery, but she didn't take any questions. She had put on her expressionless face. Very few politicians are as good at looking expressionless as Angela Merkel.

The package, she said, was something "that has not existed in this form in the entire history of the Federal Republic." She then proceeded to rattle off one superlative after another, saying that she knew that this was "the most difficult domestic policy decision that I have had to make in my term in office." "We have no time to lose," she added.

Until that day, Merkel had shown little interest in being part of any race. Up until then, she had seemed to think she had time to wait for the inauguration of the new America president, Barack Obama.

"When I came to terms with the fact that we were dealing with endless billions," she would later tell SPIEGEL during a final interview at the Chancellery in late August, "everything suddenly became clear to me."

Where Danger Lurks

In the interim, Merkel had become more aware of the crisis, and she began to take on her external enemy. She had waited longer than others, longer than her European counterparts, who had already taken action while she was contemplating her next steps.

But what she eventually did alienated her internal enemy even more.

Merkel has a strong sense for where danger lurks. In politics, it is usually to be found in the company of friends. During the four years of her chancellorship, she has rarely missed a meeting of her party's parliamentary group. She has been careful not to make the same mistake former Chancellor Kohl made, when he once left such a meeting early. Merkel saw how members of his party took the opportunity to plot against the chancellor in his absence.

That Tuesday's caucus meeting would be challenging. Fifteen people refused to support Merkel and did not vote for the economic stimulus package. She said, again and again, that she wished things had turned out differently in terms of the economic crisis. As one of her associates said, Merkel's own ranks had been deeply infiltrated by the "poison of doubt."

The CDU floor leader Volker Kauder intervened and managed to prevent the poison of doubt from spreading. "That was difficult," Merkel later remarked wryly to one of her associates.

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