Germans have peculiar love-hate affair with Merkel

(This article has also been published as a Reuters Breakingviews comment on 2 January 2013.)

The chancellor is the nation’s most popular politician, although voters don’t like her policies. How does she manage? She benefits from an opaque communications strategy, and the lack of a coherent alternative. Pro-EU leaders should pray that this Merkel bubble doesn’t burst.

German voters seem to be suffering from a mental disorder. They hold contradictory beliefs: both massively in love with Angela Merkel and deeply unhappy with the chancellor’s most important policy decisions.

The list is extensive. Most Germans adamantly reject every euro crisis plan which Merkel helped create. They would vote down the European rescue fund, the European Central Bank’s bond buying scheme, the banking union and – of course – any bailouts for those lazy Greeks. On the other hand, Merkel consistently ranks as the nation’s most popular politician. Even 20 percent of the supporters of the rival SPD prefer Merkel to her gaffe-prone challenger Peer Steinbrueck. Ten months ahead of national elections, her conservative CDU party is at a seven-year high in the polls.

How does she manage? To start, she communicates effectively. By using a non-abrasive, consensus-oriented style and dividing indigestible big decisions into palatable mouthfuls, she neutralises opposition from her party’s hawks and from euro-sceptic Germans. She abstains from polarising “blood, sweat and tears” rhetoric.

She is helped by the lack of a credible alternative, either within her party or in the opposition. Also, the dislike of Germany’s European commitments is largely theoretical. Europe’s woes have no noticeable effect on the everyday life of ordinary Germans.

Merkel’s stealth politics has worked well up to now. While populist anti euro parties have flourished in Finland and the Netherlands, no radical groups have gained any traction in Germany. However, the cautious approach has disadvantages. Progress is frustratingly slow and potentially insufficient.

A bigger risk is that Merkel’s popularity bubble might burst. Democratically elected politicians cannot pursue unpopular policies forever. Even now, her party’s right wing supports her only through gritted teeth. However, Merkel has actually managed to lead public opinion in her direction. It took a few months, but after the chancellor decided that Greece should stay in the euro zone, the majority view moved from pro-expulsion to something like Merkel’s.

Germany’s critics should keep Merkel’s domestic constraints in mind. While there is no need to temper their complaints, they should keep fingers crossed that she won’t fall off her political tightrope.

Context news: 

The next German national parliamentary election will take place in September or October 2013. The CDU has constantly led in opinion polls. The latest survey by Forsa institute, conducted in late December, shows 41 percent of voters support conservative party, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the 2009 election, her party and its Bavarian sister party CSU received 33.8 percent of the vote. If the CDU performs as well as current polls suggest, it would be the party’s best result since 1994.

Polls show that Merkel is the most popular politician in Germany, followed by finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. In December, 81 percent of Germans thought that Merkel was doing a decent job.

At the turn of the year, Merkel’s social democratic challenger Peer Steinbrueck caused a stir in his own party and the wider public by claiming that the German chancellor wasn’t earning enough in comparison to business leaders.

(This article has also been published as a Reuters Breakingviews comment on 2 January 2013.)

4 Comments

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4 Responses to Germans have peculiar love-hate affair with Merkel

  1. Michael Peters

    Sehr treffend analysiert. Es gibt nichts hinzu zu fügen. Außer: Hoffentlich ereignen sich in den 10 Monaten bis zur Wahl noch genügend Katastrophen, die
    “Queen Angie” doch noch vom Thron stoßen werden. Ich bin da ganz optimistisch. (Smile)

    Gruss
    Michael P.

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  3. Xenofon Grigoriadis

    Gleiche Meinung wie Herr Peters.
    Die Fähigkeit von Frau Merkel die öffentliche Meinung zu manipulieren – ich wähle bloß ein anderes Wort als Sie – ist doch für jeden unabhängigen Menschen mindestens besorgniserregend und zeigt den Ernst der Verantwortung den sie trägt für das längst nicht mehr nur ökonomische Auseinanderdriften Europas.
    Doch die politische Elite teilt diese Einschätzung nicht. Sie spricht davon, dass andere, als die derzeitige “Lösungen” keinen Rückhalt in der Bevölkerungen fänden! Also die Deutschen seien schuld, Merkel würde ja ihnen nur folgen. Aber Merkel hat ja doch die öffentliche Meinung selbst gebildet, der sie jetzt dienen muss und zwar durch nichts tun. Denn nichts tun, kann auch etwas sehr Aktives sein. Das sollte man aus der Geschichte gelernt haben.

    Was “die Deutschen” angeht, ich hoffe, dass wir uns emanzipieren, politisch, wie auch informativ, dass wir Berichterstattung aus dem Ausland noch mehr konsumieren und unsere Lieblingslügen herausfordern. In dieser Hinsicht leisten Sie, Herr Storbeck auch einen guten Beitrag!

    Frohes Neues Jahr!
    Xenofon Grigoriadis

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