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Redefining charisma with Angela Merkel

Described by some as "unremarkable and dour", the leader of Europe's strongest economy rose from humble origins.

Last Modified: 21 Sep 2013 16:57
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Berlin, Germany - Pulling into Berlin's main train station from the east, the first thing one notices is an extremely big pair of hands looming over the city.

The massive billboard shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel's fingers forming her trademark "Merkel rhombus". Look closer, and one notices the 2,400-square-metre poster is a mosaic of thousands of pictures of her supporters' hands.

The metaphor is painfully obvious: Germany's future is "in good hands" with Merkel as chancellor.

Though Germany has avoided the worst of the global recession under Merkel's watch, and unemployment rates have fallen continuously since 2009, many foreign observers have trouble understanding what appeals to Germans about the plodding political style of their chancellor, whom they shower with approval ratings of more than 60 percent.

Merkel has been described in international media as an uninspiring figure - an "unsmiling quantum chemist", or "unremarkable and dour". Some Germans agree: Stefan Kornelius, an editor of the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, wondered whether she's "too boring for Germany". Once, when asked to comment on what she feels when she thinks about Germany, Merkel replied: "I think of well-sealed windows. No other country can make such well-sealed and nice windows."

‘New form of charisma’

Clearly, she lacks the glitz of predecessors such as the suave Gerhard Schroder. In 2011, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper pondered [Ge] whether the unflashy "Merkel method" was in fact "a new form of charisma".

Is this it - does Merkel simply have a different brand of charisma? Jacqueline Boysen, who wrote a 2005 biography of Merkel, laughs. "That’s a nice way of putting it." Rather, she said, the key to Merkel's success has been her patience: her "capacity to hide herself behind these official pictures we have of her. She was always underestimated, but she wasn't angry about that. She tolerated it and she was patient enough to wait for the right moment."

Many Germans believe their country is in good hands with Angela Merkel at the helm [Al Jazeera/Sam Bollier]

The daughter of a Protestant pastor, Merkel spent much of her childhood in Templin, a small town in Communist East Germany. She became active in politics after the Berlin Wall fell and Germany moved towards reunification. Given her gender and East German background, she wasn’t a favourite to succeed in the conservative Christian Democratic Union party. But Chancellor Helmut Kohl took her under his wing, and she gradually rose to become the CDU's head in 2000, then chancellor in 2005.

Though she was one of few powerful women in her party at the time, Merkel didn't play the gender card, according to Boysen. "She doesn’t stress the point that she is a woman," said Boysen. "She always was one candidate among others."

Merkel's Templin hometown is far from CDU territory. In the last Bundestag elections in 2009, a plurality of voters in the district chose the Left party. Partly descended from the former East German Communist Party, the Left supports nationalising the banking sector and withdrawing from the NATO military alliance.

Nevertheless, Templin mayor Detlef Tabbert said Merkel is widely admired in her hometown. At Gela's boulettenschmiede, a small, smoky roadhouse restaurant in Templin, Helga Dornbusch said she knew Merkel - "she was very smart," Dornbusch recalled - many years ago when the future chancellor was a member of the East German Communist Party's youth movement, the FDJ.

Dornbusch plans to vote for the CDU so Merkel can "finish what she started", explaining that she admired how the chancellor has kept Germany safe from the fallout of the eurozone debt crisis. As rain poured down outside, she said, "Merkel can consider herself lucky that we Germans are all such hard-working people… and not like those [in southern Europe] that are out laying in the sun."

Many of Merkel's supporters share this sort of soft nationalism: fans at a rally in Potsdam said they like that she has kept Germany "sovereign" and made the country more prominent on the world stage.

A childless 'mother'

Domestically, Merkel has been referred to [Ge] occasionally in the media as "mutti" - or "mum" in English. The Frankfurter Rundschau reported that the nickname was coined in 2008 by fellow party members to mock her, after Merkel invoked the proverbially thrifty "Swabian housewife" as a model for climbing out of the global financial crisis.

"It was not meant as a compliment for her," said Boysen. "It’s not very nice to call a woman who has no children 'mutti'." And, the Frankfurter Rundschau noted, the term implies that "the most powerful woman in the world has been degraded to a ruler of hearth and home".

Yet though it may have been coined as an insult, some supporters see the appellation more positively. To Eleonore Muller - normally an SPD voter but who plans on picking Merkel's CDU in this election - the chancellor is, like a mother, trustworthy and down-to-earth.

Since the last Bundestag elections in 2009, Merkel has been accused of swiping ideas from her opponents on the left. For instance, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Merkel announced that she wanted to phase out Germany's nuclear power plants by 2022 - long a demand of the environmentalist Greens party.

And when she announced this June that she supports measures to control apartment rents - a move opposed by conservatives within her own party - she admitted, "Yes, [rent control] was an idea from the SPD", her party's main rival.

Her opponents say these moves show an utter lack of conviction. Yet this uber-pragmatism may be working to siphon off votes from parties to the left.

Irmgard, a left-leaning Merkel supporter from Werder who did not want to give her last name, said she thinks the chancellor is perhaps "redder" than she is portrayed, and that maybe Merkel is "supposed to belong to another party". With the chancellor's approval rating higher than that of her party, Irmgard isn't alone in her opinion.

And this may well be the best measure of a successful politician, charismatic or not: A sizable share of Germans doesn't like what her party stands for, but can't help liking its leader.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

Anja Krieger assisted with translation from German.

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Al Jazeera
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