My problem with Merkel

by Michael Seckler

22nd of September, 18:50pm: Angela Merkel has just received the message of her overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections and is ready to give a speech to the celebrating audience. She goes to the stage, waits until the crowd stops to applause and says “jooa…. now….”! This is how you a start-victory-speech Angela-Merkel-style.

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But even if Merkel smoothly creates another black hole of Charisma after the start-over, she has all the reason to celebrate: The best party result in 20 years, the biggest political opponent demolished and only a breath away from the absolute majority. 42% percent was an impressive result and the media reacted accordingly: “Germany is now Merkel-Land” wrote “DER SPIEGEL” immediately after the election.How did it happen? How did we end up in the “Merkel-Republic” (also DER SPIEGEL)?

For most people the surprise was not Merkel’s success itself, but rather the dimension of it. In- and outside of Germany people expected Merkel to win, for one big reason: Germany, as has been repeated endless times in the last years, has managed to survive the crises in a comparatively good shape. While at the margins of Europe things were going to the dogs, Germans felt safe that the storm wouldn’t arrive at their doorstep. So far, they have been right.

What is striking however, is that Merkel does not seem to have been elected for what she did politically. 46% percent of the people stated that they voted for CDU because of the person Merkel and only 7% percent because of the political position she stands for. Indeed, Merkel’s intelligent and unagitated way of doing politics has been appreciated across most of the political spectrum.However this statistic shows that something apolitical is looming behind the shining victory of Merkel’s historic result.

After all, politicians should be elected for their policies and not for their character or a feeling they transport. Merkel knew about the public sentiment and, intelligent as she is, used it almost merciless to her advantage. Why change anything, if the public discourse of “Germany is doing good” can do the work for you? Someone might fact-check whether she actually deserves the credit for Germany’s position today!

Consequently her entire election campaign was basically content-free. On posters you saw her face next to the slogan “Germany is strong. And it should stay like that”. In Interviews she didn’t grew sick of emphasizing how good the past years have been for Germany. The party substituted the lack of content with the creation of a symbolism around the person Angela Merkel. And the public happily bought into that deal. In the end of the election campaign a poster of Merkel’s hands was enough to symbolize everything she was supposed to stand for: Merkel as “Mother Germany”.

Plakate zur Bundestagswahl

In this light Merkel’s victory begins to look less like the appreciation of successful politics and more like the capitulation of an electorate in the face of a complex political reality. This rejection to actively address the political challenges of our time equals, even if implicitly, an out-of-time retreat to the national. After all, Merkel’s success was built on the fact that we are doing good. But who is “we” in this understanding? Is it other people in Europe who are suffering from the worst economic and financial crisis since WW2? Does this “we” include African refugees who are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea trying to get to Europe? The implications of simply buying into the “germany is doing ok”-discourse seem rather short-sighted and frightening.

It is the fault of the political opposition to have let this happen too easily. Peer Steinbrück failed to address these issues by not providing  an alternative vision. Why didn’t he make Europe his topic more actively? Way too easy this issue was left to the euro-sceptical party “Alternative for Germany”, which only scarcely missed the 5% threshold. Why didn’t he put more pressure on Merkel regarding her half-hearted reaction towards the NSA-scandal? A scandal that generated frightening little outrage. What could have shattered Merkel’s seductive image of “strong Germany” is pointing out the superficiality of her campaign by providing a strong alternative. Steinbrück didn’t have that. Instead German voters chose comfort over conflict. To me, this seems to be a rather dangerous decision.

The last time Germany was immersed in political escapism people were afraid to talk about the past. Today it seems that people are more and more afraid to talk about the future.

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3 thoughts on “My problem with Merkel

  1. @ Vladimir: The idea was not to identify ONE perpetrator but to provide an analysis of a politcal atmosphere that is created and maintained by different players. By Merkel / CDU because they relied on the favourable public sentiment instead of focusing their election campaing around actual political content. By Steinbrück/SPD because they didn’t have a strong enough alternative. And finally also by the electorate, which – as I see it, was too uncritical towards the “we-are-doing-good”-sentiment! Enjoyed the article you send! Thanks for that!

  2. Without any offence intended to the author, as a reader, this analysis leaves me quite fuzzy and confused. So whose fault is it? Merkel? CDU? Steinbrück? The opposition? The electorate? It’s as if the author briefly identified the possible perpetrators without a general conclusion arising out of the discussion.

    Here’s a pre-election article that I recommend to everyone interested in the topic, as it provides a very good picture of the inner workings of these elections and the German political system today:

    http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21586299-perceptions-germanys-chancellor-who-likely-win-re-election-september-22nd-are

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