Germany’s chancellor exceeds almost every other politician in her ability to hold on to power, writes Michael Fry
Amazingly, the nightly news bulletin on TV does not even mention the election. As I sit writing this in Leipzig, I watch items about Syria, the Costa Concordia, gunman running amok in Austria, Hamburg SV sacking its manager.
Yet Germany is holding a general election on Sunday. If this were Britain, it would be almost inconceivable for the news to cover much else. But perhaps here, as in a lot of things, the Germans have got their priorities right.
It has not been an exciting campaign, but that is because from the start it has been clear Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats were going to win. In the opinion polls she regularly comes out twice as popular as her amiable but dull Social Democrat rival for the top job, Peer Steinbrück.
True, a shadow has fallen over the final week of Merkel’s campaign. Last Sunday there was a Bavarian state election where the local wing of her party won 100 out of 160 seats in Munich’s provincial parliament: quite a triumph in an electoral system almost the same as Scotland’s, that is, designed as a barrier to landslides. But the celebrations had to be somewhat muted because the landslide also crushed the liberal Free Democrats, who lost all their seats in Bavaria. And at the national level, the Free Democrats happen to be Merkel’s coalition partners. If they lose all their seats in Berlin’s Bundestag as well – something now quite on the cards – she will be pushed into a necessarily somewhat uncertain search for a new alliance.
That bothersome turn of events can still be averted. The Germans, like the Scots, are sophisticated tactical voters and perhaps enough Christian Democrats will switch their second preferences on the regional lists to save the Free Democrats from oblivion. But in each particular constituency it is always a fine judgment. Anyway, the chancellor’s message in the last days of the campaign is for people to give both their votes to her.
At all events, Merkel is set fair to embark on her third term in office and experience what is usually denied to most politicians: a chance to see some of her cherished policies come to fruition – or not, as the case may be with the euro. It is tempting to set her performance alongside that of the only comparable figure in recent political history, Margaret Thatcher.
When Maggie won her third election in 1987, a little less convincingly than the previous one, it was a sign the storm clouds were already starting to gather round her. They would at length release the deluge of pent-up resentment and resistance that swept her from office three years later. However, the outlook for Merkel could scarcely be sunnier.
She has no rivals inside her own party, and one of the reasons the main opposition party has been unable to make much headway is that it does not actually disagree with much of what she has been doing. The governing Christian Democrats look back on a tradition of social provision in return for economic discipline.
So, in times of recession too, policies are even-handed and do not attract the charges of vindictiveness that tend in Britain to dog every Tory effort at reform. In the phase of economic recovery it is the Social Democrats that have been calling for cuts in public spending, since they also value balancing the books. But with the economy now growing quite strongly, this does not seem the right time for drastic fiscal action.
It has been a consistent part of Merkel’s method to take the wind out of the opposition’s sails, rather than to raise a hurricane in which its ships will sink. She narrows the differences among the parties instead of making them wider and deeper. Germany has in the last few years been pushing through a big reform of social security which prunes universal benefits, requires claimants to look for jobs and in general cuts the cost of the whole system. This was actually proposed by the Social Democrats when they were last in office but, without hesitation, the Christian Democrats took it over.
Defence was another area where, with the end of the Cold War, economies became not just possible but imperative. The Germans possess no nuclear deterrent so, unlike the British, are not faced with the vast cost of renewing it. But they did have national service for all young men. Merkel abolished it on the grounds that standing armies eyeball-to-eyeball along a lengthy land frontier in central Europe are no longer necessary. Defence has been cut and not many right-wing governments do this.
Most extraordinary of all has been the chancellor’s appropriation of the Green agenda. German Greens are much more powerful than British Greens, sit in force in the Bundestag and are always there as potential coalition partners. But Merkel offers hardly less of a Green manifesto than the Greens do. She is, after all, the one who has decided Germany will cease to produce nuclear power once the existing generators have reached the end of their useful lives. The gap will be filled by the wind and the waves. No other leading economy has been so bold.
Altogether Merkel has reached a unique position where the hardest thing to achieve in German politics is to push her from office. Even on the worst practical scenario for Sunday, she will still emerge as the leader of the largest party. If the Free Democrats have exited, there is an alternative already in waiting: a grand coalition with the Social Democrats and an unassailable majority in the Bundestag.
Steinbrück has ruled that out for himself, but he does not speak for all his colleagues. So, should it prove necessary, expect for some lucky Social Democrat what has already worked with David Cameron, François Hollande, even Vladimir Putin: the motherly smile, the kiss on both cheeks, the warm cuddle, the sort of cosy relationship she loves. Viewers should keep watching: Merkel is a class act.