She can’t seem to get it right

Not even Germany’s enviable economic position is helping Angela Merkel from declining in the polls

Josh Dehaas
She can't seem to get it right
Her political style, some suggest, just isn’t very ‘inspiring’ | Michael Sohn/AP

After four years spent deftly navigating a coalition government with her left-wing rivals, German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally formed her “dream coalition” following the 2009 election. But just over a year into her new term, support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has sunk to 37 per cent, down 12 per cent since the election. “It’s a curious phenomenon,” says William Drozdiak, president of the American Council on Germany. “Especially considering Germany’s economy is doing quite well.”

It’s more than just a bit troubling for Merkel, especially since seven of Germany’s 16 states will elect regional representatives this year—votes that are considered a test of the chancellor’s leadership—and if the CDU flops, the party could oust her. According to Der Spiegel, if an election was held today, Merkel’s allies could lose all seven votes—even Baden-Württemberg, a state that the CDU has held since 1953.

The CDU’s decline amidst enviable GDP growth (3.7 per cent in 2010) may be proof that Merkel’s cautious, non-ideological style is getting old with voters, says Drozdiak. “Rather than being a bold visionary, she’s very tactical in nature,” he explains. “Before making a decision, she takes one step forward and looks around to see which way the wind is blowing.” That style, he adds, “doesn’t seem to be very inspiring.” In fact, in a recent poll, 70 per cent of Germans said it’s unclear where the country is headed.

But it’s hard to blame Merkel alone for her lack of accomplishments at home. Any big domestic plans she may have had were interrupted by Europe’s debt crisis. And though she came out looking strong for pushing through her Greek bailout plan, local voters in North Rhine-Westphalia reminded her of their discontent by voting heavily in May for the left-leaning Social Democratic Party and Greens on the same day European leaders met in Brussels to approve the bailout. The Economist called it “her worst political drubbing in more than five years.”

And her party continued to languish last summer. A poll in August revealed an 83 per cent disapproval for her coalition with the Free Democratic Party. Recognizing the need to reinvigorate her leadership, she announced an “autumn of decisions” in September. But those moves provoked backlash, as well. When she extended the life of nuclear power plants in Germany, 100,000 protestors hit the streets. And the decision to pay off debt rather than cut taxes caused coalition infighting.

Still, not everyone believes Merkel’s recent struggles spell the end of her career. Josef Joffe, Stanford University political scientist and editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, says that while the party will lose some elections this year, Merkel will likely survive. Germans may be dissatisfied now, but there is nobody in the party to replace the chancellor yet, and Germany’s lower house can only hold a non-confidence vote if there’s a clear alternative. As for visions, Joffe’s not so sure Germans want Merkel to be a dreamer. “As [West Germany’s former chancellor] Helmut Schmidt famously said, ‘if you have visions, go to your ophthalmologist,’ ” says Joffe.