So where’s the payoff?

If the economy is humming and inflation is in check, why have German voters soured on Angela Merkel?
Michael Sohn/AP

On paper, it’s been a good year. Germany’s economy is cruising at an enviable clip. Employment is up, inflation is in check and Chancellor Angela Merkel is showing a talent for keeping her head while others about her are losing theirs. During last spring’s Greek debt crisis, for instance, the German leader proved just stubborn enough—exacting commitments from Greece to overdue financial reforms in exchange for a loan package that headed off financial crises across southern Europe. Some experts credit her with preventing a double-dip global recession.

Where, then, is the political payoff? Far from winning hosannas for their firm hand during choppy economic times, Merkel and her Christian Democrats watched this summer as their public support dwindled to record lows, raising questions as to whether Germans have turned their back on the girl from Brandenburg with the smiling eyes and iron fist. Polls taken over the summer suggest only 12 per cent of Germans are satisfied with the government’s performance, while Merkel herself has suffered her lowest personal approval ratings since she assumed office. “A lot of people are unhappy, and her leadership style is part of the problem,” says Gerd Langguth, a former member of the Christian Democrats and author of a biography of the 56-year-old politician. Suspicious of long-term vision yet shackled to deputies with their own ideological agendas, Merkel increasingly finds herself fighting internecine battles within her governing coalition, Langguth says, and each one has exacted a toll. “In Germany, no chancellor can expect people to follow her direction just because she tells them to. She’s learning what [Gerhard] Schröder and [Helmut] Kohl learned before her.”

The headwinds come as a surprise, because Merkel appeared to have come through the toughest period of her chancellorship. In the national election one year ago, her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) claimed 33.8 per cent of the popular vote, then formed what was supposed to be a conservative dream team with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) in the Bundestag. Compared to Merkel’s first government—a so-called “grand coalition” between the CDU and centre-left Social Democratic Party—the arrangement looked stable, notes Alan Jacobs, an expert in German politics at the University of British Columbia.

But fulfilling expectations proved harder than expected. Deep tax cuts demanded by Free Democrat Leader Guido Westerwelle in exchange for his party’s support left her with little choice but to slash spending while undertaking unpopular plans to reform health care and to extend the working lives of Germany’s nuclear power plants. By May, when voters in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia went to the polls, the disaffection had reached full volume: nearly 59 per cent cast ballots in favour of non-coalition parties, and significantly weakened the CDU-FDP coalition’s control of the Bundesrat, the legislative body representing states at the federal level.

The poor showing served to deepen divisions within the coaltion, say experts, forcing Merkel to quell a series of mini-revolts. Westerwelle, in particular, has been a headache: after accepting the role of foreign minister, he has repeatedly spoken out on domestic policy, at one point describing the lifestyles of a specific class of welfare recipients as “late Roman decadence.” It’s the sort of epithet that goes over badly in Germany, where the welfare state enjoys strong support, and just the sort of indiscipline the new coalition was supposed to avoid.

Merkel wasted no time in slapping him down, declaring that such scapegoating is not her “style.” But getting the team pulling in the same direction will be harder, says Hans Vörlander, a political scientist at the University of Dresden, because it will require a more stirring vision for Germany than Merkel—the consummate pragmatist—seems prepared to articulate. To date, she’s gotten by on her skills as a manager, he says, cobbling together support for her policies on a case-by-case basis by horse-trading with other party leaders.

That approach has allowed her to keep the budget in check and the economy on the rails, says Vörlander, “but she lacks the vision thing. She is waiting for solutions to present themselves. She’s not leading.”
The good news for Merkel is that, with three years left in her mandate, she has time to turn things around.

In a speech in parliament last week, she took the first tentative steps, framing a pivotal state vote next March in Baden-Württemberg as a “referendum” on her government’s performance, and calling for a “full debate on the future of Germany” during the campaign. It was a bold stroke, but one freighted with risk. The more voters consider Merkel’s record, after all, the more inclined they seem to ponder a future without her.