‘Lost years’ & ‘stagnation’? Doubts linger as longtime leader Merkel on way to securing new term
Angela Merkel could become the joint longest-serving modern German chancellor, according to the latest polls – that’s despite standing accused of "putting problems on the back burner" and lingering doubts that her new term may bring “stagnation” for Germany.
With less than a month to go until the next German federal parliamentary elections, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party is leading the polls by a wide margin ahead of the Social Democrats, according to the latest surveys conducted by German public broadcasters. This means Merkel has a fair chance of securing a fourth term as German chancellor, after she was reelected CDU leader at the party’s 2016 congress and announced her bid for the chancellorship in November of this year.
What’s behind Merkel’s political longevity?
Merkel has been head of the CDU since 2000 and has held the post of chancellor for nearly 12 years, since September 2005, with her party winning three elections in a row.
If she is indeed victorious in the September polls and then serves a full term, Merkel would become one of the longest-ruling German leaders in the country’s entire history. The current chancellor would equal the tenure of former leader Helmut Kohl, who stayed in office for 16 years and outmatched the “Father” of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, whose tenure stretched over 14 years. In fact, Merkel would trail only Otto von Bismarck, the man behind the creation of the unified German Empire who served as chancellor under three monarchs in 1871–90.
While some may wonder about Merkel’s political longevity, German lawyer Maximilian Krah, a former CDU politician, explains that her long time in office is simply a result of placing all possible alternatives out of reach. “German democracy has become highly dysfunctional under Merkel's government... so you have a politician who kicks out everyone who's capable of replacing her,” he told RT. "There are literally no alternatives left," Krah added.
Harold Amann, a spokesperson for the Bavaria Party, also told RT that Merkel was "very skillful in discovering and eliminating every potential rival."
"A lot of the members in the big, established parties have joined them mainly as a career-option not because of their political opinion. After a long way to the top these people tend to be careerists and yes-men. They avoid risks and don’t challenge the party leadership," he said.
And the problems run deeper, since the media in Germany is apparently not rushing to challenge the views and narrative of Merkel’s government, RT has been told. “I think it’s quite obvious that the mass media and TV are brought into line in favor of her leadership,” a former member of the CDU and current AfD member, Doris Von Sayn-Wittgenstein, told RT. She noted that people in Germany are not being told the truth about the scale of the migrant crisis and would re-think their support of Merkel otherwise.
The role of the media can differ though, Krah explained, noting that Merkel can simply sit back and wait to see how news outlets cover certain issues. “So she is just looking how the media and how the left-wing NGOs and civil society are reacting to something, and then she is taking their position," he argued.
Merkel’s longevity in her post is in contrast to many of her European allies. Four British prime ministers and four French presidents have served during her tenure. In Italy, the leadership has changed as many as seven times over the same period, with six different people taking the post of prime minister.
Merkel has already surpassed the “Iron Lady,” former British PM Margaret Thatcher, as Europe’s longest-serving female leader. Thatcher stayed in power for 11 years. Indeed, few European politicians have held such an influential office uninterrupted for a such a length of time. Portuguese politician Anibal Cavaco Silva had two separate 10-year terms from 1985, and the EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who occupied the post of prime minister of Luxembourg for nearly 20 years.
Ironically, Merkel is already way ahead of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is routinely accused by Western politicians and media of “eroding democracy” and creating an “illiberal state” to stay in power. Orban has so far been in power for seven years.
Fears of 'stagnation & lost years' under Merkel
Merkel’s announcement in November that she would run for a fourth term was met with mixed emotions. While her supporters praised the decision, others accused Merkel of not knowing when to quit and assumed that she had become addicted to power. According to Amann, Merkel’s victory would mean "stagnation" and "four more lost years...far from the restart that this country would need."
Even though the massive rallies under the slogan “Merkel must go!” (Merkel muss weg!) that Germany witnessed over the course of the refugee crisis seem to have become a thing of the past, the groups on social networks under the same slogan are still active and have amassed tens of thousands of followers.
Merkel’s latest election campaign rallies were at times hijacked by angry protesters. On August 26, a crowd of protesters yelled“Liar!” and whistled at Merkel during a 30-minute speech in Quedlinburg, a town in Saxony-Anhalt.
A similar incident took place at a previous rally in the town of Annaberg-Buchholz, where protesters held banners branding her a “traitor” and saying that she was “not my chancellor.”
In both cases, the demonstrators expressed their discontent with Merkel’s refugee policy, which they said had failed. Amann says he doesn't believe the "rift" in society will go away after the election.
'Putting problems on the back burner'
Key politicians in Germany also did not pull any punches on Merkel’s prolonged tenure. The leader of the Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, criticized her decision to run for chancellor for a fourth time and suggested that Merkel take up a UN post instead.
“Taking into account Angela Merkel’s weight in the international arena, she would surely be a good UN secretary general, but her interior policy during her tenure as chancellor was unfortunately unfounded,” Lindner told Germany’s DPA news agency in late 2016. Merkel’s election rival Schulz has recently gone as far as to accuse her of “neglecting her duty and putting the future of our country at risk.”
He also called Merkel “a professional in putting problems on the back burner” in an interview with the Der Spiegel weekly in early August.
Merkel “did not say a word” about “tattered schools, the suffering of refugees, tax evasion, the financial and banking crisis, the reform of EU institutions and attacks on democracy in Poland and Hungary,” he said at the time.
He claimed that Merkel “apparently lacks courage and skill” to address the issues that concern many Germans.
Amann seemed to agree, telling RT that Merkel "was of course very successful in telling the people that everything is all right. But a lot of problems are unsolved. Look at the Euro-crisis; this is far from over, or the refugee-crisis – also far from over. Her tendency to procrastinate over problems will be very bad for the people here in the long run."
Sayn-Wittgenstein argued that Merkel in fact was the one “causing problems," with Germany under her leadership turning into the “most disliked country in Europe… if you look at the financial crisis, how we deal with the southern states.”
‘Hope for change’
After 12 years in power, Merkel still enjoys significant support from the German public. According to recent polls cited by national media, there is a wide margin between the personal approval rating of Merkel and that of her closest competitor – the Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz.
Yet Andrej Hunko, an MP for Germany's Left Party, told RT that Germans proved there was "discontent and hope for change" when Merkel's approval rating dropped earlier this year, after Schulz announced his ambitions for the chancellery. However, such discontent needs to be articulated through a "really antagonistic strategy against Merkel and the CDU," while Schulz's SPD "seems to be more of a copy of Merkel's policies with some small adjustments."
A survey, conducted by UK-based market research company YouGov in August 2017, showed that only 42 percent of Germans would vote for Merkel if they had the opportunity to choose a chancellor directly.
Another poll conducted by the company and published in February showed that 42 percent of respondents strongly wanted Merkel out, while 22 percent said it was “probably” a good idea to elect a new leader. Hunko slammed Merkel's election strategy, saying it is "basically to point out that compared to other countries in Europe and around the world, Germany is relatively calm.” Yet, under this apparent smoke screen “Merkel’s governments have pushed millions into precarious jobs, lowered retirement pensions and put the healthcare system into a constant crisis."