German Chancellor Angela Merkel may look set for another term in office, but her political future hinges on the election result. If her CDU party ends up having to form another grand coalition with the center-left SPD, it will spell the beginning of the end of her political career.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Becoming the People's Chancellor
During that period, she made it clear to her confidants that a chancellor has to see every day in office as a gift. The press was becoming more critical. The respected weekly newspaper Die Zeit asked: "Is Angela Merkel failing?" The article continued: "At the moment, it looks that way." The story triggered consternation at the Chancellery.
Merkel did what chancellors always do in such situations: She took her case to the media, starting with a major interview in the influential mass-circulation newspaper Bild, followed by an exclusive interview with prominent television chat-show host Anne Will.
When Will asked Merkel whether she felt up to the task of dealing with the crisis, the chancellor gave a pithy reply in colloquial German. "Oh yeah," she said. "I reckon so."
From that point on, Merkel had the entire studio audience on her side. They applauded loudly, no matter how vapid her responses were. After the interview, her staff at the Chancellery breathed a collective sigh of relief. Merkel had established direct contact with the general public, using the media to build a bridge to the populace. The appearance transformed her into a people's chancellor, the uncrowned queen of Germany.
A New Ally
She embarked on a new strategy: battling her external enemy with a new external ally. It was on Wednesday, April 1, in the ballroom of the Berkeley Hotel in London, when Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had had their differences in the past, became allies. She had hardly been on British soil for three hours when the two leaders held a press conference to tackle the glittering Anglo-Saxon world of speculation and banking head-on.
Merkel was speaking a language that was uncharacteristic for her. The G-20 summit, she said, was a "decisive summit for the future of the world." She paused, as if shocked by her own words, and then said: "That sounds like a big deal, but that's exactly what it is."
With Merkel, usually the reverse is true: She normally has a knack for making even the most important issues seem small and insignificant.
Greeted like a Queen
A few days later, Merkel's challenger and current foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was sitting with the chancellor on the government aircraft to Baden-Baden on the German-French border, where they were about to attend the NATO summit. When they landed, sharpshooters were already positioned on roofs and in windows. Black American SUVs with darkened windows pulled onto the tarmac, stopping in front of the plane in a flurry of squealing brakes.
When she stepped out of her car, Merkel slipped under a red-and-white tape barrier to shake the outstretched hands of onlookers. She was greeted in Baden-Baden like a monarch.
In many ways, Merkel resembles England's Queen Elizabeth I. She was liked and respected by her people. She wielded authority without pomp. She learned early on, and painfully, how to keep her emotions in check. And she became queen against all the odds.
Despite keeping her distance and composure, for a moment in front of the Baden-Baden town hall, Merkel became the touchable chancellor-queen. She remains a stranger, and yet this is precisely what fascinates people.
Merkel's Biggest Mistake
But now the threat was coming from a different direction, from the "enemy within."
In late February, the CDU office in the southwestern city of Freiburg received a letter that would be read by the entire country a short time later. The author was writing to inform the head of the local branch of the CDU that he was leaving the party after being a member for 37 years. His decision, he wrote, was based in part on the "insipidness and indecisiveness of the party leader." He wrote that he found Merkel's treatment of respected senior members of the CDU "intolerable," and that her "guiding principle" had always been "populism and solidifying her own position of power." The letter was written by the former CDU governor of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, Werner Münch.
No one to date had dared to level such sharp criticism at Merkel. The letter reflected the clear and unadulterated voice of an internal enemy. In local elections on June 7, the CDU would lose more than five percentage points in Freiburg, garnering only 20.7 percent of the vote. It was the worst election result the CDU had ever had in the city. On June 7, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), lost eight percentage points nationwide among Catholic voters.
The reason for the loss in popularity was the events of Feb. 3. On that fateful day, Merkel made what was probably her biggest political mistake -- at least in relation to her own party. And it was not an inadvertent mistake, but something Merkel did deliberately. When she appeared before the television cameras with visiting Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, she knew what would happen.
Taking on the Pope
In late January, Pope Benedict XVI had rehabilitated four excommunicated members of the Society of Saint Pius X, including a Holocaust denier. "I will have to say something about this," Merkel had told her staff. She considered holding a press conference of her own. But then her staff decided to use the Feb. 3 press conference with Nazarbayev as an opportunity to make a statement, as it represented the "last slot" before the next general audience at the Vatican.
In a statement, Merkel said that it was a "fundamental issue if a Vatican decision creates the impression that it is possible to deny the Holocaust For this reason, it cannot be allowed to remain there without any consequences."
This convoluted statement will go down in history as unprecedented criticism of the pope. It is difficult to recall the last time a leader in a Western country leveled such sharp criticism against a pope. "As chancellor," Merkel told her staff behind closed doors, "I cannot pick and choose the times when I have to say such things. I waited for several days. But nothing happened in Rome."
Why did she do it? Was it her responsibility as a German leader to fight against Holocaust denial? Or was there another, less high-minded reason? When asked, one media observer summed up the answer in two words: Friede Springer.
The Springer publishing group is Merkel's patron saint and Friede Springer, the widow of company founder Axel Springer, is an important ally. She was sitting in the visitors' gallery, eating cookies from a Tupperware bowl, when the chancellor took her oath of office. When Merkel flew to the North Sea resort island of Sylt in late June for a book signing, she paid a visit to Springer.
On the day Merkel snubbed the pope, Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner wrote an editorial in the tabloid Bild, a Springer publication which is arguably Germany's most powerful newspaper. The pope, he wrote, was doing "great harm to Germany's reputation in the world."
Cold and Calculating
The Schaumburger Hof Hotel in Bonn's Bad Godesberg district offers a pleasant view of the Siebengebirge hills and the Petersberg Hotel across the slow-moving Rhine River.
Martin Lohmann has suggested meeting there. Lohmann is a Catholic, a journalist and a reluctant member of the CDU. He has a photo in his iPhone of himself and his family together with the pope. He is also the author of a book titled "The Cross with the C -- How Christian is the CDU?"
Lohmann first met Merkel 20 years ago, after he had written an article in the conservative weekly newspaper Rheinischer Merkur, in which he called for the creation of a Catholic working group within the CDU. Merkel had called him, saying: "I want to meet you." They met that same day in Merkel's office. But the Rhineland Catholic and the East German Protestant have never really seen eye to eye.
Lohmann disparages Merkel for her inability to deal with criticism. He calls her "cold and calculating," a person who is infinitely adaptable to changing political circumstances and who acts in a "Nirvana of conviction."
In a speech at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, says Lohmann, Merkel "spoke like 100 bishops together." And yet he doesn't believe her. He feels that no matter what she says, her actions are inconsistent with her words. Lohmann is convinced that Merkel made a mistake in criticizing the pope. She was hoping to score a few cheap political points, he says, but instead she did enormous damage among Catholic CDU supporters. Lohmann says that he knows many bishops who have been lifelong CDU voters but who have said they will no longer vote for the party.
Merkel says: "I know that I am expecting a lot from the CDU."
In the late afternoon, Lohmann reluctantly attends one of Merkel's campaign appearances on the market square in Bonn. Merkel and Lohmann shake hands amiably. After the speech, he says, bitterly, that, once again, she didn't mention anything about the "C" in CDU.
Deviating from the Script
Merkel is campaigning in Binz on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen, her home electoral district, in the middle of a thunder storm. A cluster of people are standing huddled under their umbrellas in front of a spa hotel, as rainwater cascades from the tips of one umbrella to the next.
Opponents of nuclear power are causing a commotion on the square during Merkel's speech. She deviates from her standard script and says that the CDU supports nuclear power, "but certainly not for all time." She refers to nuclear energy as a "bridge" technology -- in other words, one that can be used until renewable energy can meet Germany's energy needs -- even though she normally supports extending the operating life of Germany's nuclear power stations, which are currently due to be phased out by around 2020.
She calls it "acting in a force field that is always relative."
Coming Out of Her Shell
It is Wednesday, Aug. 26, with 32 days to go before the election. The day's cabinet meeting has been cancelled, freeing up Merkel's schedule for an interview in her office.
She comes up the stairs to the eighth floor by herself. "Why don't we get started," she says. "Mr. Wilhelm will join us later."
A meeting without government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm, without a chaperone? This is not the same woman who set out to become chancellor four years ago. At that time, she was a bundle of nerves who would try to second-guess the questions she was about to be asked.
Today she leans back in her chair, clearly more relaxed. She speaks openly, is surprisingly approachable and comes out of her shell. Whenever she pauses to think about how best to answer a question, she gestures with her hands, tracing gentle round shapes in the air.
Four years ago, when she supported a hands-off approach to the financial markets, she was dealing with a different "relative force field" than she is today. The former SPD-Green Party coalition government had deregulated markets in Germany. Wall Street in New York and London's financial district were considered hip, and it's hard to go against the trend.
She was clearly wrong in her position back then. Nevertheless, she insists that she had already changed directions in 2006. She has learned to be less relative in her approach.
Delivering Punch Lines
It's Sunday, Aug. 30 and three key state elections are being held across Germany, not to mention local elections in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Merkel is sitting on the stage at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. On that morning, two prominent German journalists, Josef Joffe and Michael Naumann, discover what it means at the moment to tangle with Merkel.
The audience boos whenever Naumann and Joffe, neither of whom are exactly lacking in self-confidence, ask Merkel leading questions or try to catch her out.
She exudes self-confidence. She has lost the faltering voice in which he delivered her first official statement on the crisis. Instead of giving prickly answers to questions she doesn't like, she is even able to deliver punch lines with aplomb. This is truly a new side of Merkel.
At the beginning of the discussion, the two journalists mention the fact that she was born in Hamburg, and ask about her relationship to the city. "Well," Merkel says and pauses for effect. "My memories of my first six weeks of life are somewhat limited."
The Small Print in the Contract
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Merkel issues a government statement on Afghanistan. Things haven't been going well for her in recent days. Some members of her own party have made unnecessary mistakes, while in Afghanistan a German colonel ordered the bombing of two hijacked tanker trucks -- an incident which brought Germany considerable international criticism.
The CDU, like an overweight bird whose wings are too short, simply doesn't seem able to get off the ground. Germans don't seem to be hungry for change, but neither is there a wave of enthusiasm for returning Merkel to the chancellorship.
At his last session in the Bundestag, veteran CDU Bundestag member Georg Brunnhuber asked a colleague to photograph him with the chancellor. Brunnhuber, who is head of the parliamentary group of CDU representatives from the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, will not be returning to the Bundestag after the election.
"Georg," Merkel asked him when she first ran for the chancellorship, "do you think it will work?" She was afraid that she wasn't conservative enough.
"Oh, come on," Brunnhuber said. "The rest of us are conservative enough by ourselves."
That was the plan. Brunnhuber and all the other conservatives, combined with the more modern-minded Merkel.
Today, Brunnhuber still believes it was the right approach. However, he adds, the Bundestag election will be a "touchstone" that people will look to. The phrase sounds slightly ominous. It is the small print in the contract between Angela Merkel and the CDU
Ready to Take Back Power
That is the situation as Merkel enters the final stretch before the election. She has come to grips with the crisis, her external enemy. Other countries are emulating her policies, like the "cash for clunkers" scrapping premium to boost car sales. The Economist concedes that Germany and France are emerging from the crisis more quickly than the United States and Britain.
But Merkel's internal enemy is still lurking in the shadows, more so than ever. It is appraising the situation and, on Sept. 27, it will determine whether she can deliver, and whether she was worth all the trouble she inflicted on the party. Delivering means capturing 37 or 38 percent of the vote for the CDU/CSU and being in a position to form a coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party, the Christian Democrats' traditional coalition partner. This is the deeper reason why Merkel keeps praising the alliance with the FDP.
Political parties are merciless. They hand over power like a loan -- and they can take it away just as easily.
It is quite possible that Merkel will remain chancellor after Sept. 27. But chancellor of what? Chancellor of another "grand" coalition with the Social Democrats? That would be the beginning of the end for Merkel.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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