Angela Merkel has led her party for 15 years, since April 10, 2000. She has done more than renew the Christian Democrats, says DW's Volker Wagener: she turned it into it her party.
People who travel a lot tend to hear a lot about Angela Merkel, and more often than not, it's surprising.
Putin respects her, say those familiar with the Russian soul. In Washington, she shows up as an equal. Africans love her modesty, people in the Balkans marvel at how she wordlessly domesticates male Alpha animals. Merkel, it would seem, is on the brink of canonization - in her lifetime, no less!
We, the media, the so-called fourth power in the state, act as masters of ceremony and thus contribute significantly to preserving the status quo. "Prostrate before the unparalleled" or "Angela Royal" are both examples of journalistic respect, at times perhaps clumsy ingratiation. At the same time, we still wonder why. What is the pattern of her successful DNA? Modest performance, economical gestures and facial expressions, poor rhetoric: she sticks out in the political world of egocentrics. That is a phenomenon.
She and the party are one
15 years at the helm of the CDU suggests a continuity that in fact does not distinguish the Christian Democrats. A completely new party emerged from the old CDU of the Kohl era, an old boys club with but a few token women at the top. The contours now, however, are no more sharply defined than before - quite the contrary. Opposition and unrest in the rank-and-file never flared at Merkel for giving the conservative, business-friendly CDU a Social Democratic touch, but only because the party benefited from the luster of her chancellorship. A comparison to the programmatic eruptions seen within the SPD during that same period of time show the party wore out five party leaders in the process.
Under Merkel, the CDU gave up the family silver. Both the conservative and the Catholic elements moved into the background. Military conscription is a thing of the past, nuclear power is being phased out; a women's quota has been introduced at the corporate management level, minimum wage approved - and there's a consensus on immigration.
Merkel has snagged the middle, some say. But, on the other hand, where there's no compass, any direction will do, frustrated party members point out.
Merkel has turned the party into what she herself is, and that happens to be many things. She is free of any ideology, has no illusions or vision, but she is pragmatic - boringly so. But that's what garners the voters' trust. She scores more with silence than she does by talking. Often enough, too, she ignores criticism from within her own party's ranks.
She is even economical when thwarting political adversaries. The days when the woman from East Germany was jokingly referred to as "Mutti", mama, are long gone. In the end she even uses this bit of unobtrusive opposition to her favor. Under #Muttivation, the party headquarters propagates success stories of the woman with the aura of inviolability.
In the leeward side of Merkel's popularity
But a conundrum remains: in part, her success emerged at the expense of the party. Merkel's triumph as chancellor has been accompanied by her party's defeats in German state elections - without eroding her power.
Only five of the 16 federal states are now governed by the CDU. The party also had its wings clipped in city council elections in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt, which are all ruled by Social Democrats. In the economic hub of Stuttgart, even a Green politician calls the shots. Next to the SPD, the former environmental protest party has turned into a real competitor – but the Greens are also an option when looking for a coalition partner. That's comforting for the conservatives, in the light of the fact that the sudden death of the Liberals robbed them of their natural partner.
Merkel, however, must not fear for her following in the party. The lack of an atmosphere of constructive debate in the CDU is legend: tame, tamer, Christian Democrat.