The many faces of Frau Merkel

For conservatives she is too social-democratic; for social-democrats she is too neoliberal; who is Germany’s Power-Frau?

Angela Merkel
Unlike Germans, Europe's de facto leader is not popular with most Europeans, suggests Bergfeld [EPA]

Electoral revolts have rocked Europe for the last two-and-a-half years. Since the outbreak of the debt crisis, 17 national governments in the European Union have collapsed or been voted out of power – 12 were members of the Eurozone.

The German elections taking place in a week’s time are a different game. They have been labelled “the most boring federal elections ever”. It is certain that Angela Merkel will remain German chancellor for the next four years. The election itself will only answer whether the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Merkel’s coalition partner, will stay in power or be replaced by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in a grand coalition. Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) prefer the former option. A CDU-FDP coalition is no safeguard for prosperity. However, it allows Merkel to dominate by right of personality and compensate for all the coalition’s political weaknesses.

While the label Made in Germany is associated with high-quality precision engineering around the world, the Merkel-brand requires some explanation.

The despot, the pop star and the opportunist

The story begins in Portugal in 2012. On November 12, two days prior to the southern European general strike, Chancellor Merkel paid a visit to Lisbon. After tens of thousands had demonstrated against Merkel in Athens, I expected similar scenes from a country engulfed in crisis and protest. I was wrong. The demonstration on that Monday afternoon only attracted a couple of hundred leftists under the banner “Fora Merkel!” – Merkel must go. Riot police and metal fences separated protesters from the Presidential Palace where Merkel met with members of the Portuguese cabinet. A small group of rebel clowns carried a Merkel effigy with a large swastika covering her torso. When protesters couldn’t break through lines of riot police, they burnt the effigy. An act of desperation against Europe’s de facto leader.

The world’s most powerful woman – if one is to believe Forbes – is a figure of deep-seated hatred in southern Europe: Frau Merkel, the despot.

Back in Germany the picture is quite different. While the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had to marry a pop star, Angela Merkel is a pop star – and she knows it. She has mastered the Facebook-effect – the primitive accumulation of “likes”. As a fervent football supporter she regularly attends the matches of her national team. When she cheers a goal, the whole country celebrates. The televised moment belongs to her. Merkel’s signature hand gesture – the Merkel Rhombus or Diamond – has become one of the world’s most well-known hand gestures. It is so popular that CDU placed a huge billboard of this gesture[Gr.] in the centre of Berlin. No party logo needed. In response, SPD’s Peer Steinbrück resorted to showing a middle finger in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Merkel scores.

Merkel neither succeeds at innovation nor initiative. She succeeds at stealing.

For former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, she was mein Mädchen (my girl), for voters she is simply Mutti (mum). The Mädchen took charge of the CDU at a time when it was deeply plagued by financial scandals. She sacrificed her mentor, Kohl. The Mutti lifted “the sick man of Europe” out of crisis. Like the idealised mother figure from the 1950s, it was done by living below one’s means. The recipe for success: high levels of productivity paired with low labour costs and declining social security. Angie knows how to be mother and daughter at the same time. As the first female and East German chancellor she has to prove herself – not least to her conservative party.

For many conservatives she is too social-democratic. For social-democrats she is too neoliberal. For my parents who were recently featured in the German newspaper, die tageszeitung, she was both a Power-Frau and too German-nationalistic. In the recent television debate one of the moderators insinuated that Merkel wouldn’t fit the voter profile of the CDU if she answered the questions of the Wahlomat honestly. Frau Merkel, the opportunist.

Different conservatisms

Unlike her conservative counterparts across Europe and the US who invoke fear – Islamophobia, homophobia et al. – to win popular support, Merkel redefines conservative populism. She allows the public to project their hopes for stability and security in an uncertain world onto her. In doing so, she stretches the notion of what conservatism means in 21st century Germany and beyond. During the EU accession talks with Turkey, she trailed the public polls by arguing against Turkey’s entry into the EU and for a “special partnership”.

At a young-conservatives meeting in 2010, she lamented that attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany had “utterly failed“. In the same breath she condemned Thilo Sarrazin’s remarks as racist. As the former Secretary for Agitprop at the East German Academy of Sciences she prefers to use the notion of “budget consolidation” to cuts and austerity. As a matter of fact, her rule is just as technocratic as those unelected leaders such as Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank (ECB). Labelling the measures imposed on the Greek people as alternativlos (without an alternative) has raised some eyebrows even in the docile German press.

Of course, comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, are never far off. They are misplaced though. The SPD-Green coalition from 1998-2005 laid the ground for Angela Merkel’s success story. Their Hartz labour reforms weakened the negotiating position of the trade unions prior to her rule. Ironically, it was also the Greens and Reds who broke the post-war German peace consensus by sending German troops to Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001. The path for Merkel had been paved. As the leader of the opposition she might have insisted on assisting the Americans in Iraq in 2003. Yet, under her reign Germany has abstained from participating in the bombing of Libya. These days her government stands firm against German involvement in Syria. Merkel isn’t keen to bomb innocent children though she is happy to ratify ever greater amounts of weapons exports to keep the German export-machine running smoothly.  Between 2005 and 2009 Germany’s weapons exports doubled. Frau Merkel, the warlord.

If Thatcher set an example by privatizing Britain and destroying the trade unions, Merkel will be remembered for turning Europe German. She creates countries in her own image: export markets for German goods. Unemployed Spanish and Greek youths are just collateral damage in the project of building a powerhouse amidst indebted economies and failed states. Why should she flex her muscles like Thatcher if she has a loyal electorate at home, subservient heads of states and local ruling classes across the European periphery? It’s not without reason that we use the German word Realpolitik to describe Machiavellian (or, Merkelian) politics.

Merkelian politics

As we know from Machiavelli, politics is not a science but an art form. And Merkel excels at it. Picasso once said that “bad artists imitate, good artists steal”. Frau Merkel – the artist and thief. Prior to the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007, she quickly sailed the Arctic Sea to steal the issue of climate change right from under activists” and environmentalists” noses. After the Fukushima accident she stole the Green Party’s key proposal to turn off German nuclear power plants. Her biggest opponents, the SPD, accuse her of stealing their main electoral themes: youth unemployment, a cap on rents, and the minimum wage. Merkel neither succeeds at innovation nor initiative. She succeeds at stealing.

Millions of southern European workers have had their democracy stolen. They have no say in who takes office in Berlin, yet they live under the directives of Merkel, via the EU and the ECB. This is out of the question back in the motherland. The election poster reads “Gemeinsam erfolgreich” (Successful together). It shows Merkel engaged in a conversation with someone the viewer doesn’t see. The message is: Merkel listens.

The reality is she doesn’t – neither to the hairdresser working on $4-an-hour nor to the 1.2 million children living in extreme poverty. Why should she? The average voter is more interested in what necklace she wore during the televised election debate.

Mark Bergfeld grew up in the suburbs of Koeln, Germany. He holds a Bachelor’s in PPE and a Masters’ in Sociology. He is an activist and writer. He was a leading participant in the UK student movement in 2010. He currently is a postgraduate research student at Queen Mary’s University of London.

Follow Mark Bergfeld on Twitter: @mdbergfeld