Rust Spots Gather on the Iron Chancellor II

January 15, 2018 5:26 pm Last Updated: January 22, 2018 3:08 pm

Four months ago, the global consensus was that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was headed for easy reelection as Germany’s leader. Polls (those now increasingly unreliable benchmarks of politics) indicated that Merkel would win handily—not by a majority, but a sufficiently strong plurality to make forming a new government relatively easy.

Indeed, Merkel appeared to have inherited the sobriquet previously accorded to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (“Iron Maggie”), with the intimation that she was “Iron Angela.”

And, to virtually all observers, Merkel’s politico-economic circumstances, with a strong German economy, primacy within the European Community, and commended foreign policy, were surefire “winners.” Moreover, she appeared to have diffused rising discontent over the million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya, and so on, that had roiled the social waters in many German localities.

Many of these refugees appeared both ungrateful and ungracious, and a disconcerting amount of crime was attributed to the throngs of young males that seemed to characterize much of the refugee incursion and embodied distinctly non-German sensibilities. Merkel adroitly moved to cut these numbers significantly, and the furor over refugees appeared to be mitigated.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats had their worst election results since 1949. Her longtime political coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), were beaten even more badly. And, worst of all, for Merkel, the conservative Alternative for Germany (AfD) pulled 5.8 million voters and entered the Bundestag for the first time.

Merkel immediately rejected any alliance with the AfD, viewed by many as crypto-fascist at best in its sociopolitical views. But the Social Democrats were also highly disconcerted by their devastating defeat. As one observer put it, “they need time for therapy rather than another opportunity to ruin themselves in office.”

So Merkel found herself essentially between political versions of Scylla and Charybdis, with no lifeline to her standard SDP colleagues.

Christian Democrat party leader Angela Merkel and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of German unification in Berlin on Sept. 27, 2000. (REUTERS/Michael Urban)

Consequently, ignoring the AfD, Merkel worked to attempt a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats and environmentalist Greens. Each party, figuring it had Merkel over a barrel, pursued maximalist demands—but in the end, the effort collapsed, leaving Merkel with a number of unpalatable alternatives, including attempting to govern as a minority and seeking new elections.

Circling back to the Social Democrats, Merkel managed an agreement, inter alia, pledging closer cooperation with France to strengthen the eurozone and cracking down on arms sales to countries in conflict zones. But Christian Democrat approval is only half the battle, and the SPD must still approve the agreement at a Jan. 21 party congress and again by a postal vote by general party members.

Observers have their fingers crossed. But even if these hurdles are surmounted, projections for the coalition entering power are not until April.

Moreover, the issues facing Germany are not trivial. The country is the most prosperous in Europe, but some parts of the population feel they have been left behind. The immigration issue is far from resolved, and Merkel continues to suffer from her existential humanitarianism for permitting the million-plus refugees to enter. They appear unlikely to return “home” in the near term, and soak up economic and social services less affluent Germans believe should be concentrated on them. Nor is the commitment to increase defense spending universally popular. Dealing with Brexit, Putin, and Ukraine—let alone the vagaries of fibrillating U.S. policy—will be daunting.

But, assuming that this rendition of the “grand coalition” (Christian Democrats and SPD) comes to pass, one can also observe that Merkel dodged not just a bullet but a firing squad. There seems to be rising Merkel fatigue, as epitomized by minimalistic support for another grand coalition. A recent poll showed that 67 percent of Germans think that Merkel’s best days as chancellor are behind her.

Consequently, Merkel might want to keep in the back of her mind the Thatcher example. Also regarded as a monumental figure impervious to criticism, Thatcher, after having won three elections, faced waning party (and popular) support over both domestic and foreign affairs issues. Challenged for party leadership in 1990, she elected to resign rather than face a significant chance of defeat.

Merkel might well wish to consider a carefully calculated resignation, leaving time for having a “life” and crafting the standard 1,000-page political memoir. After all, Pope Benedict XVI (now “Pope Emeritus”) retired in 2013 to enjoy a quiet life of writing and contemplation—not the worst of fates after decades of intense activity.

(Courtesy of David T. Jones)

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned more than 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistranslated the name of the German party AfD. The correct name in English is Alternative for Germany. The Epoch Times regrets the error.