"Merkeling" is a neologism for letting politics run their course. For a decade, the chancellor has been successful doing just that. Now, of all times, her 10th anniversary year will decide her fate, Volker Wagener says.
This year everything is different: Angela Merkel's politics of the steady hand, quiet undertones and slow decision-making are history. And that on the 10th anniversary of her chancellorship.
The political audits on the Merkel decade had already been written in the summer - at least mentally. Depending on one's political perspective, they were either anthems of adoration or, at the worst, teeth-grinding recognition.
Merkel, eponym for an era, was at the height of her power, her reputation and her authority. The Greeks aren't the only ones who could tell you a thing or two about it - so could the Social Democrats and the alpha males in her own party. She managed Germany, and Europe as well - until the summer, that is.
End of a political fairy tale?
Then came the refugees. Hundreds of thousands declared Germany the Promised Land. Merkel responded with statements like: "We can do it!" and "Asylum laws have no upper limit." But since September, politics has once again turned confrontational. Legions of do-gooders have shown their support of the welcome culture with their actions, but society's stomach is rumbling.
In the meantime, an unofficial rebellion is brewing in Merkel's conservative alliance. All that's missing is a ringleader. How the tide has turned! Merkel, who on numerous occasions has been designated as the world's most important, powerful woman, who even had some members of the opposition at her feet, is experiencing an erosion of her authority. Are we at the end of a political fairy tale?
Merkel's rise wasn't that spectacular: Her first years as chancellor progressed as if under anesthesia. With no natural rivals, she led a grand coalition without any opposition. Her reputation wasn't built on what she did, but on how she did it: a long period of passivity, only making the big decisions once the majority had been assured. She sanded off the rough edges from her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, so much so that one could mistake it for the Social Democrats (SPD). Merkel has become the unofficial leader of Germany's consensus society.
In short: Politics under Merkel is boring but reassuring. Almost cuddly. Merkel is seen as trustworthy - even deep into the ranks of the left-wing and alternative camps. She's a master of the art of inconcrete and compelling phrasing. Nothing symbolizes Merkel's political style better than the Buddhist-like appearance of her well-known hand gesture, a diamond shape formed by her thumbs and index fingers. "Look," it seems to convey, "I have insights into the basic facts of life." This symmetry, her party, the voter support, however, has been lost with the open-door policy.
Autumn of the matriarch?
Merkel's ability to put conflicts on ice has proved to be inappropriate when faced with the refugee issue. Until now, the mistakes of others were her greatest asset; now she's the one that has slipped up. Her mistake avoidance strategy, as a political recipe, has failed.
Now Merkel has to lead - and she has proved she can do that. She recognized the opportunity as political support for Helmut Kohl wavered and she was elected CDU party chairperson in 2000; in a flash, she said goodbye to nuclear power after Fukushima in 2011. But in all these steps she had the opinion polls - the will of the people - on her side.
Now it's time for her to wield her scepter, not just on the international stage but also in domestic politics, a field that has almost exclusively been left to her coalition partners the SPD. Merkel's focus has been foreign policy: save the euro and bring climate change in check, defy Russia, discipline Greece. She has made herself indispensable when it comes to crisis management around the world, leading to a reassuring "Swiss-ification of Germany," according to the "Die Welt" newspaper.
Those times are over. Merkel must now decide how Germany will proceed on the domestic front. More than a million refugees in a few months is hardly a footnote in the daily business of governing - and it won't be in the long run either. Does she have a plan? If not, anything is possible: resignation, early elections. It had been widely assumed she would stand for re-election again in 2017. But that was before the welcome culture.
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