The chancellor has turned Berlin into a beacon of stability — by draining German politics of any hint of debate.
Days after Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) released its campaign program for the coming election this fall, Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared on television to defend it. Sort of. Upon its release, the CDU’s program had been widely panned: It contained nothing new, the press said, nothing specific, too few numbers, and sounded suspiciously like the manifesto of the conservative’s rival party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), only vaguer. Its slogan — “for a Germany in which we live well and gladly” — was particularly vacuous, even by campaign slogan standards. It included a raft of airy allusions to prosperity and security. In its few tangible pledges, the conservatives summoned up bland crowd-pleasers such as tax breaks for lower and middle-income Germans (not a bold move in light of record-busting tax revenues); the overdue abolition of the so-called solidarity tax that had funded infrastructure in eastern Germany since unification; and more resources for families, internal security, and social housing. The conservatives vowed to cut unemployment from 5.5 percent, the lowest since 1980, to below 3 percent. In short, the message was: Everything is cushy for Germans, but it could be even cushier. Reelect the CDU.
Despite the criticism, the figure at the front and center of the CDU’s campaign sat at ease in a red-leather armchair, ready for her annual “summer interview.” Clad in a blue and white pant suit, with a turquoise and red gemstone necklace, she smiled frequently at her inquisitors, two of Germany’s sharpest commentators. She was almost coquettish at times, friendly to a fault. She didn’t so much defend her party’s manifesto as she did transcend it. She was unwilling to utter an unkind word about her opponents or their acerbic attacks on her and the CDU’s proposals. In short, clipped sentences, she listed her party’s spending plans, doling out presents as a kind auntie would bonbons to children. Every jab from the interviewers she dodged, in a wholly successful effort to appear above the political fray and in control — and alone the one to deliver what ordinary Germans want: more of the same.
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Germans refer to this modus operandi as “Merkel’s method.” When Merkel is asked about the technique, as she was by the interview’s moderators, who referred to it as a “trick,” she chuckles lightly, and typically replies — ever so innocently — that she has no idea what they’re talking about. Meanwhile, her disgruntled opponents mutter, the woman recently dubbed the unlikely new leader of the free world is doing real damage to German politics. At a July campaign event, Martin Schulz, Merkel’s chief opponent, took the CDU to task for its fluffy program and reluctance to do battle, assailing the chancellor for committing an “attack on democracy.”
In early July, the German weekly Der Spiegel chimed in: “In democracies, it isn’t only the result but also the process that counts,” it scolded. It went so far as to call the buttoned-up chancellor’s style “scandalous.”
Merkel is poised to win handily in September, which would deliver her a fourth chancellorship. The Christian Democrats currently stand at around 40 percent in the polls and the Social Democrats at 25 percent, which is virtually identical to the vote tally of four years ago. Such numbers appear, if anything, to understate Germans’ affection for their leader: Surveys show that nearly 60 percent of Germans would vote for Merkel if the vote for chancellor were direct (it’s not); just half of that would vote for her SPD adversary, Martin Schulz.
Yet Merkel has achieved all of this by, essentially, depoliticizing German politics. She skillfully avoids instigating or acknowledging real conflict on substantive topics. She ensures that there are no quality nationwide debates taking place. At a time when much of the West seems to be bolting toward extremes, she’s turned German politics into one big, warm-and-fuzzy centrist feather bed. In doing so, she may be doing lasting damage to the Federal Republic.
Central to Merkel’s method is the way she boxes out the Social Democrats from the campaign’s center stage by absorbing their ideas and occupying their space. Merkel has sidelined the SPD this way time again over the years, on dozens of issues ranging from the minimum wage to nuclear power. This strands the SPD in no-man’s land, unable to debate the chancellor on CDU policy, which differs only in degree or detail from their own. On the campaign trail, Schulz splutters, cursing the chancellor and the CDU but without a real target to shoot at, or flesh-and-blood issues to engage on such as migration, climate change, or the European Union’s troubled southern perimeter. (This phenomenon is only exacerbated by the fact that the SPD has ruled in a relatively peaceful “grand coalition” with the Christian Democrats for eight of the past twelve years, thus making it share in responsibility for the government’s record.)
Merkel’s tactic effectively demobilizes potential SPD voters who see no pressing reason to vote left or even show up at all on election day. But the knock-on effects are further reaching than that. It demobilizes conservative voters, too, who want to see more passion and right-wing oomph from their party, rather than a shadow dance with the Sozis. Some conservative voters have responded to the leftist tilt and platitudes from their former party by peeling off to the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which will most probably enter the Bundestag for the first time in the fall. (Some critics in her own party blame Merkel for this: By sliding to the center, they claim, she has opened up the right to electoral extremists for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic.) But more simply don’t vote at all, as the CDU/CSU’s weak turnouts in regional votes show; nationally, voter participation across the party spectrum stands at post-reunification lows.
And Merkel’s success in deploying these tactics has caused others to follow her lead: The Social Democrats and, to a certain extent, the country’s green party, too, have joined this nebulous center. They haven’t responded to Merkel’s moves with fresh, even bolder, more innovative stands; on the contrary, the four mainstream parties, which includes the free-market Free Democrats, today join each other in rainbow-colored, mix-and-match coalitions across the country. This has consolidated a centrist consensus in the republic that has never been more solid. Only the far left and the far right, which stand at 9 percent apiece in polls, stand out as dissenters in the pan-German harmony.
Germany’s storied Christian Democrats, Europe’s premier conservative party, hadn’t always been so mellow or streit-shy. With a firm hand and staunchly traditional weltanschauung, the party’s founder and postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, led the country into the Western, U.S.-led camp despite mass protests across the country against the Federal Republic’s decision to join NATO in 1955 and the creation of a standing army, the Bundeswehr, the same year. At the time, the CDU and the avowedly socialist SPD stood hundreds of kilometers apart on issues from relations with Moscow to equal rights for women. In the 1980s, Helmut Kohl followed a decade of Social Democratic rule by slamming the brakes on the political changes emanating from the cultural revolution set off by the student movement. He muscled through the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and tapped into currents of nationalism enough to make sure that the CDU dominated the country’s right flank. Then, after a short red-green hiatus, came Merkel, who almost at once headed for the middle, where indeed most of the republic lay. German Christian democracy was stood on its head, and remains that way today.
In a stunning gambit that surely made Adenauer and Kohl roll in their graves, Merkel exhibited her tactical finesse once again — or sold out her party, depending on perspective — in mid-July, in effect swiping from the leftist parties of one of their few signature issues: gay marriage. A bill to legalize homosexual partnerships — granting the same legal status as heterosexual marriage — had been in Bundestag committees for years, but blocked by the Christian Democrats, whose hard-liners barred the doors, even though public opinion (and, privately, Merkel too) had long favored it.
Merkel’s overture came out of the blue: Ever so casually, in a televised open discussion with a woman’s magazine early this summer, Merkel let drop that she wouldn’t mind if the bill came to the floor, and that Christian Democrat MPs could vote as they wished — each according to his or her conscience. The bill passed a week later, led by the three left-wing parties while the Christian Democrats split, a third of them backing the new law. (Merkel, pro-gay marriage, actually voted against it to appease her conservative critics.) What should have been a resounding, signature left-wing victory proved pyrrhic. Merkel looked open-minded and tolerant, and in one fell swoop took the issue off the table.
In one of the few moves still left to him, Schulz has been trying to make the Merkel method an explicit campaign issue, accusing the chancellor of cynicism and a lack of principle. But if it bothers Schulz and others in the political classes, Germans as a whole — who, for the most part, acknowledge the substance of the accusations — seem unfazed. Perhaps for good reason: As other countries in Europe and the West have lurched toward extremes, Germany is lurching toward the center. This has made it a bastion of stability on the Continent. But it has also raised bitter questions: Is the antidote to the illiberal Orbans and Putins of the world really a thin, watered-down political culture that skirts substance? And with parties on the far left and far right muttering that the mainstream politicians are all in bed together, how long can this hold once Merkel is gone?
“The bottom line is that 80 percent of Germans think the economy is good and that Germany is keeping Europe afloat,” argues Gesine Schwan, a political scientist who the Social Democrats and Greens nominated for federal president in the aughts. “They feel there’s no need for real discussion on EU reform or the euro crisis or migration because we’re right and that’s that, which is what Merkel says. But what happens then when the economy turns down?” There’s no answer to this in Merkel’s method, says Schwan; on the contrary, the method dictates the avoidance of doing anything until there’s a crisis — and then the Iron Chancellor can use her “steady hand” to steer the country through it.
Merkel’s formula, argues journalist Josh Groeneveld in HuffPost Deutschland, “may work in the blinkered, self-centered German present, but it’s not a long-term solution to anything.” “Germany desperately needs new ideas. There’s catching up to do: in digitalization, education, the job market, economic modernization.” Merkel’s never had to pay for this paucity herself — not yet, writes Groeneveld.
In the upcoming term, which Merkel and the CDU are certain to win, not just Germany but all of Europe will be looking to Berlin — in tandem with Emmanuel Macron’s France — to undertake sweeping reforms of the EU, address the still-floundering economies of Southern Europe, drive forward climate policy, and come up with long-term policies to confront migration. Germany is seen as a bulwark against the authoritarianism of the Trumps, Putins, and Erdogans who seem to be multiplying and morphing into ever more pernicious regimes. These are difficult topics — and all have barely merited mention in Germany’s tepid election campaign.
Instead for the moment, Merkel plows ahead, seemingly unstoppable. When she announced to party cohorts the 2017 election slogan of “For a Germany in which we live well and gladly,” one CDU higher-up suggested a tiny alternation, beginning it instead with “Our Germany …”
No, snapped back Merkel, adding “What does this look like, an editorial conference?”