Angela Merkel is a courageous woman. But only if it absolutely must be. There is this story from her childhood. When she is supposed to jump off the three-meter board in swimming class. She dares to jump up, after all. She’s just not comfortable with jumping down. And so up there stands a girl who doesn’t know what to do. The minute weighs and waits. Until it’s almost too late and the teacher ends the lesson. Only now does the student make a decision. She jumps. At the very last moment. Now, one should not psychologize too much into such childhood memories. And yet this little episode says a lot about Angela Merkel as a person – and about the way she does politics today, many decades later.
Most Germans think the woman in the pantsuit, whose greatest extravagance is the changing color of the blazer, is pretty boring. But that is precisely what many like about her. The more unpredictable Donald Trump acts, the more aggressive Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kim Jong Un appear, the more reliable this staid, scandal-free head of government appears. That is one side. But since the beginning of the refugee crisis, there is also this other side: hatred.
In Augsburg, the "Merkel-must-go" shouts from outside penetrate the tent
Never has the CDU leader been more polarizing than in her twelfth year as chancellor. She feels this every day during the election campaign. There are the beer tents in Bavaria , where she is now even cheered by the CSU people again. As was the case on Tuesday in Augsburg . Long queues at the entrance, people marching into the packed tent, young people holding up signs that read "Voll muttiviert" ("Fully motivated"). And then the Chancellor talks about all that her government has achieved, praises the local politicians present, who proudly bask in the glory of the boss. Then she herself is praised a bit and gets a bouquet of flowers. Finally, the Bavarian anthem and everyone feels somehow good. (here the report to the appearance in Augsburg)
But there are also these other, the gloomy moments. In Augsburg, the whistles and "Merkel-must-go" cries of the discontented only penetrate the tent from outside. In many cities in eastern Germany, however, Merkel is met with abysmal hatred on the open stage. Just like in Finsterwalde or in Bitterfeld. "Get lost!", shout hundreds of people there, "traitor to the people!" or "Merkel to jail!". Her voices are overflowing with rage. Sometimes tomatoes fly on stage alongside words. And there stands the most powerful woman in the world now and looks like the girl back then on the diving tower in the swimming pool.
How should she deal with these hostilities?? Should she react to the bullies at all?? Angela Merkel first does what she usually does in such situations: she just gets on with it, reels off her program seemingly unmoved and waits to see what happens. This can be seen as a weakness. In truth, it’s probably her greatest strength: This woman simply always has herself under control. Whether the American president refuses to shake her hand in front of the eyes of the world. Whether Horst Seehofer provokes her in public or accuses her of a "reign of injustice". Whether the AfD’s top candidate calls her a "chancellor dictator" or the Turkish president compares her to the Nazis. Merkel has herself under control. Sometimes she counters with a smile that seems to say: Oh, let her play. Sometimes she rejects such attacks "firmly" after all. Most of the time, however, she simply lets the attacks go nowhere – which presumably hits her opponents the hardest.
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Merkel reacts above all
Governing with the rhombus, her opponents call it disparagingly. But a bit of awe seems to resonate as well. For more than a decade, Merkel has been driving on sight. It’s more a case of reacting than acting. Often she has no choice. Because she has to deal with more crises than any of her predecessors. She is becoming the woman with the fire extinguisher. Through their gambling, financial corporations trigger a conflagration that engulfs entire countries. In the end, even the euro is on fire. Millions of people are fleeing war and bombs, hunger and hopelessness. And so while she is putting out one fire after another, as best she can, a generation is growing up that cannot even remember a time without Merkel.
Who on 24. September may vote for the first time, just had the first day of school, when this Chancellor Gerhard Schroder replaced. But unlike the Kohl generation, which in 1998 longed for a new beginning after the tired last years of the unified chancellor, the Raute generation seems to have settled in quite comfortably in Merkel-land. Like no other party, the CDU picks up on this feeling in the election campaign. "For a Germany in which we live well and gladly", is written on their posters. She could also have written on it: "Don’t worry, Angie is already taking care of it."
Yet less than two years ago, it looked as if the era of Germany’s first female chancellor was coming to an end. On the refugee issue, she’s doing something she’s never done before. When thousands of people in Hungary ask for help under the most miserable conditions, the usually rational head of government makes an emotional decision. It is the most courageous and controversial decision of the Merkel era. And it is the beginning of their most serious crisis. In the polls, the CDU/CSU continues to plummet, while the AfD celebrates one triumph after another in state elections. The CSU becomes a fierce opponent of its own chancellor. As is so often the case, Merkel makes policy for the moment. But this time people expect answers beyond the day. Answers she cannot give.
At the beginning of 2016, political consultant Michael Spreng estimates the chances that Merkel will still be in office at the end of the year at 50:50. "With her humanitarian line on refugee policy, she has taken a full risk. That was highly unusual for them," he says looking back in an interview with our newspaper. In the end, she also owes her political survival to CDU alumni like Wolfgang Schauble and Volker Kauder. Despite their own misgivings, they remain loyal even as Merkel grows increasingly lonely. "If they had stood up to her, things would have been really tight," Spreng is convinced.
The fact that Merkel is once again leading the polls so confidently has a lot to do with the fact that far fewer refugees are coming to Germany in the months that follow. That the CSU stops its continuous fire just in time for the election campaign and the SPD somehow gets in its own way. But for Spreng, there is another crucial point: "Ms. Merkel has consistently modernized the CDU, positioned it even more in the center of society and, in refugee policy, gained an appeal far beyond her own camp."And if conservative voters run away from her for it at the same time? When she is called the worst names? When her own people accuse her of social democratization of the party? Then that’s the price she has to pay.
She manages the present, but what will the future bring??
After all the storms, the 63-year-old seems at peace with herself. Anyone watching her in this election campaign is witnessing a woman whose composure is contagious. Of course, it always seems a bit muttish when she talks to citizens – even when these people are older than she is. And, of course, you can blame it for lulling the people to sleep. But when it comes to the question of who to entrust your future to, that feel-good feeling might be just the ticket. Political consultant Spreng calls this kind of feel-good election campaign a "recipe for success for good times". "As long as things are going well, many Germans to this day vote according to the old Adenauer motto: No experiments." In this policy, however, he also sees a problem. And that means the future. "The two major parties primarily administer the present," notes Spreng. But many young people ask themselves: What will our country look like in 20 years?? What does globalization mean for me? What job can I do until I retire?? Is my life still plannable at all? Can I afford to raise a family? "Merkel doesn’t give answers to such questions, and that could fall on her feet in the coming years," says Spreng.
As if she recognizes this void herself, the chancellor has been emphasizing lately that she is still "curious". But is that enough? People do not expect more than curiosity from it? Don’t expect her to shape the country more than administer it?
Germany before the election. A country that is doing better than perhaps ever before. And yet there’s a vague hunch that it might not go on like this forever. That we can’t disconnect from the rest of this world that is out of joint. There are people for whom this foreboding is frightening. But most of them don’t want to get out of their feel-good corner. Not yet. You can always deal with the problems when they are there. Merkel will get it right. In her own way. Only jump from a three-meter board if you absolutely have to.
We want to know what you think: Augsburger Allgemeine is therefore working with the polling institute Civey. What the polls are all about and why you should register, read here.
You can also find numerous pictures and videos of Angela Merkel’s appearance in our live ticker: