It’s the Economy, Mutti!
The CDU is all set to reemerge as the single largest party this time, thanks to Merkel’s stewardship of the German economy through a turbulent phase for Europe. When much of the continent shook from deep recession after 2008, Germany stood steady under the managerial excellence of Mutti or mother, as Merkel is nicknamed.
Although the labour market reforms which equipped Germany to flexibly ride out mass unemployment and distress were initiated by Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel’s predecessor from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), she has continued to implement them with clinical German efficiency and rigour. Joblessness in Germany is today at 5.5% compared with the overall Eurozone average of 9.1%. Merkel’s promise to lower unemployment to 3%, technically defined as “full employment”, if re-elected is a credible manifesto in the eyes of German voters who have seen her repeatedly deliver on her word.
Performance legitimacy that fills the pockets and wallets of ordinary people is the best guarantor of political longevity in mature democracies. Merkel has no peer in this realm. In spite of her CDU’s commitment to slashing taxes and ushering in business-friendly deregulation, Merkel has appropriated the SPD’s “social justice” issues over the years. In contrast to conservative politicians elsewhere in the Western world, Merkel has sustained state welfare spending. All the emphasis by the SPD on redistributing wealth is falling flat in the face of Merkel’s centrist record wherein Germany has relatively low-income inequality with a Gini coefficient of just 0.29.
During the peak of the Eurozone crisis a few years ago, Merkel did impose harsh austerity rules on fiscally weak Eurozone countries and prolonged their agony. But her own record at home speaks of an ability to coopt the socialist agenda and keep the Left divided. Her questionable leadership of the European Union (EU) during the debt crisis may have earned plenty of enemies abroad and resurrected fears of German domination in the continent, but she has hewed to the pulse of domestic public opinion and kept German voters’ faith.
Tiding Over the Migrant Wave
If Merkel opportunistically disarmed the centre-left, she has also stolen the thunder of the far right which labels her as a traitor to Germany’s white Christian identity for admitting nearly one million refugees in 2015. That singular act, when she opened Germany’s doors on humanitarian grounds to desperate Muslims fleeing wars in the Middle East, could have been a fatal misstep.
The rise of rightist populism with a one-point agenda of halting migrants from diluting racial and religious purity of the West has caused mammoth upheavals like Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s victory in the US. But Merkel deftly tided over this danger by incrementally hardening her stance and pulling the rug from under the feet of the Islamophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Sensing that her magnanimity to refugees might cost her crucial votes, she quietly dropped her initial “we can do it” slogan for accommodating foreigners and played to the galleries by endorsing a ban on the burqa and declaring “Islamist terrorism” as the “greatest threat” to Germany.
While she never went to extremes like portraying Islam as a mortal enemy of Western civilisation, Merkel has craftily usurped populist themes and taken the wind out the sails of the AfD, which at one point in 2015 was surging in popularity and dreaming of recreating Nazi-era practices.
With another (possibly final) four-year reign on the anvil, Merkel should try to transition from survival mode to legacy mode. As a pragmatic balancer who mixes up ideologies and vacuums up concepts, she has tasted unparalleled success in German politics but has yet to translate that capital into inspiring leadership of the EU or lasting contribution to international causes. Claims that she is the de facto standard bearer of the globalised world order since Trump won the US election are wishful. ..