Germans expected to hand ‘Mutti’ Merkel her 3rd term
Germans take to the polls Sunday, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, 59, is almost certain to win her third term as leader of Europe’s biggest economy.
Los Angeles Times
BERLIN — Her necklace made more of a statement during a televised debate than she did, with beads the colors of the German flag. Even her supporters admit she’s no soaring orator. A giant campaign billboard features a close-up of her hands, not her face.
But the owner of that patriotic jewelry and those hands with the fingertips pressed together looks poised to renew her claim as the world’s most powerful woman.
Germans go to the polls Sunday, and almost all indications are that Chancellor Angela Merkel will emerge with a third term as leader of Europe’s biggest economy.
Which party she’ll have to govern with in coalition remains a toss-up. But Merkel, 59, is almost certain to extend her streak as one of the longest-serving leaders in the West.
Another term would boost her time in office to 12 years and introduce her to her third sitting American president.
The country she heads is prosperous, comfortable and generally approving of her low-key, cautious style. She routinely polls as Germany’s most popular politician, credited with steering the nation safely through the choppy waters of the euro debt crisis. Where Southern European economies are floundering, Germany’s mighty export machine continues to churn.
Her opponents say she lacks vision, but Merkel confounds them with her talent for making anodyne statements of little substance that somehow succeed in soothing her compatriots, who have nicknamed her “Mutti” — “Mommy.” (She has no children.)
“I’m not saying in a Freudian way that Germans have a mother complex, but she does seem to put a lot of people at ease, and the record seems to justify that trust,” said Joerg Forbrig, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. “She projects the sort of feeling, shared by most, that we’re doing rather well.”
Her calm, unruffled air has lulled voters into complacency, critics say, and turned this election into one of the dullest in recent memory, even though the outcome has serious implications far beyond Germany’s borders. Europe’s debt crisis, quiet for now, could flare at any time, triggered by political instability in Italy or by Greece’s problems.
Economists urge Germany, the continent’s undisputed leader, to take bold steps to fix the situation — writing down more Greek debt, agreeing with eurozone partners to jointly issue government bonds, signing up to radical banking reforms — but Merkel has clung to an incremental, at times ponderous, approach.
At home, a steep rise in energy prices has begun to worry German industry. Workers complain that wages have flattened and social inequality has increased, despite a low unemployment rate that Germany’s neighbors envy.
The election has sparked little national discussion of the big issues. Instead, voters have been distracted by such sideshows as a widely derided proposal by the Green Party for public cafeterias to go meatless one day a week and a magazine cover showing Merkel’s main rival, Peer Steinbrueck, flipping the bird. (He approved the photo.)
Merkel’s party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has built its campaign almost entirely around her, relying on personality rather than policy. The enormous billboard in Berlin, the German capital, showing nothing but Merkel’s hands — joined in a diamond shape, her trademark pose — is meant to assure voters that their future is safe in her care.
Polls consistently show the CDU leading the pack heading into Sunday’s election, well in front of Steinbrueck’s Social Democrats but without enough support to land a majority in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament. That means Merkel would have to find coalition partners, the norm in German politics; she currently governs with the conservative Free Democrats.
It remains possible that a collection of left-leaning parties could come out on top at the ballot box and band together to snatch away Merkel’s keys to the chancellery. But analysts consider that unlikely.
More probable, if the Free Democrats perform as badly as polls suggest they might, is a “grand coalition” like the one Merkel presided over in her first term, a marriage of convenience between the CDU and the Social Democrats. Steinbrueck served as Merkel’s finance minister then, but he has ruled out his, if not his party’s, participation in a repeat of that configuration.
Although many Germans appreciate Steinbrueck’s reputation as a straight shooter, his policy proposals — a national minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich — have failed to catch fire. More publicized have been his gaffes, including his statement that he would never pay less than $6.50 for a bottle of pinot grigio wine.
Most Germans, aware of their country’s disastrous experience with charismatic leaders, have responded positively to Merkel’s unpretentious, pragmatic, risk-averse style. During her one and only debate with Steinbrueck, at which her necklace stole the show and spawned its own Twitter account, she modestly and somewhat paradoxically described her government’s achievements as “relatively sensational.”
“She seems to be responding to developments rather than shaping developments,” said Forbrig, the German Marshall Fund analyst. “She is the most powerful woman on Earth, and she leads one of the largest industrial countries in the world. There’s a need for German leadership.”