Smart Thinking

Merkel may be a beacon of stability, but she’s not good for democracy

Angela Merkel remains the master of Germany's political arena. But is that good for the country's democracy?

Words by
Henry Foy
Illustration by
Dale Edwin Murray

Angela Merkel strolled to her fourth consecutive election victory last month as if no other result was imaginable. She was right.

In a turbulent world, she’s cast as a beacon of stability. Certainly, given the frantic nature of global politics and chaos caused by the ballot box, there’s a widespread craving for consistency.

But while Merkel’s political strength has provided succour to forex traders, commentators and pollsters, her unassailability has come at the cost of smothering Germany’s democracy into a perilous languor that’s laid the ground for the return of far-right politicians to the Bundestag.

Dictators maintain their rule through repression, fear and a neutralisation of political enemies. Merkel is no dictator, but has achieved the latter in a manner no secret police could ever match.

Germans call her Mutti, mother of the nation. Her surname has become a verb – merkeln – to defer, or make a decision later. Neither are used kindly, but she cares little. The inherent stability is all that matters.

“Merkel’s victory has come at the cost of smothering Germany’s democracy into langour”

By heading a coalition of her centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) with her biggest rivals, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), for eight of her 12 years, she spiked their cannons. How does a party attack decisions taken by a government they’ve been propping up?

In the campaign’s sole television debate, the organisers only invited Merkel and the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Martin Schultz – nobody else was close enough in the polls to be considered a challenger. Even Schultz was trailing by 13 points.

It was dubbed the ‘Duel’ but was a boring spectacle that summed up the torpor of the election itself, where two supposed rivals agreed on most of the issues. The finger-jabbing of Trump vs Hillary or the bellows of the Brexit campaign were altogether absent.

Major issues facing Germany were ignored. Voters had no opportunity to hear Merkel challenged on the country’s future energy strategy, its relations with Russia, its education system, its position on Eurozone reform, or its defence role in an EU soon to be shorn of Britain’s military heft.

A lack of public debate means a calm political arena of which Merkel is master. Her bold and admirable decision to throw open Germany’s doors to fleeing Syrian refugees in 2015 sparked a public discussion that left her politically exposed. Mutti got the message: no topics, no trouble.

But German voters have been short-changed and they’re working it out. At the 2013 election, the CDU and SPD together won 77 per cent of the vote. This time they secured just 53 per cent, as more voters turned to smaller, anti-establishment parties including the far-right, Islamophobic, Alternativ für Deutschland, whose 12.6 per cent of the vote makes them the first far-right party in parliament for five decades.

Merkel’s stability isn’t surprising: Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl shared 30 years in charge between them. And her prolonged term is good for Germany, Europe and the world. But inertia could become a liability.

Voters can be bored into submission. But they can also choose to look elsewhere. Merkel needs to look no further than Brexit Britain to see the dangers of centrist complacency, and the backlash it can create among those who feel ignored by their leaders. There are three years until she has to think about doing this again. That is a lot of time to use the power she has earned.

Henry Foy is a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times