Having landed in Tel Aviv back when he was West Berlin’s mayor, Willy Brandt was
taken to the Mann Auditorium, where he said he was impressed that Israel named
its largest concert hall after a German.
When told that the structure
commemorated not Thomas, the celebrated novelist, but Frederick, a middle-aged
Jew from Philadelphia, Brandt asked what the Mann he hadn’t heard of might have
written. “A check,” he was told.
Since then, Germany itself has become a
check-writer as well as political antithesis and social envy of the continent it
lynchpins, a status personified by Angela Merkel, the unassuming woman who last
week emerged as the century’s most successful politician.
handily her third consecutive general election, Merkel’s incumbency of eight
years can now potentially grow by another four, a feat that would exceed Tony
Blair’s decade and Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years in power, and place Merkel in a
position to try and reach François Mitterrand’s 14 years, and her mentor Helmut
Kohl’s 16 years in power.
The vote constitutes a note of thanks for
Merkel’s delivery of stability, responsibility and predictability, crowned by a
minimal unemployment rate of 5.3 percent, a 5.9%- of-GDP current-account
surplus, and a trade surplus of more than $170 billion, in stark contrast to
what is happening elsewhere in Europe.
Merkel’s Germany is culturally
vibrant and socially docile, with Berlin established as a united Europe’s
beating heart, while this country of prosperity, tolerance and generosity avoids
the kind of rioting seen in recent years in Paris, London and
Then again, for her chancellorship to survive its third term
Merkel might have to produce traits she has so far failed to display.
IMMEDIATE task facing Merkel, cobbling together a coalition, is complex enough,
though the simplest of the challenges that await her.
center-right Christian Democrats won 42% of the electorate, while their main
rival, the center-left Social Democrats, made do with 26%. This kind of decisive
gap on the party level, coupled with 70% approval ratings for Merkel personally,
defies trends elsewhere in the West, where leaders are mostly beleaguered,
unpopular and weak.
On the other hand, with all due respect to the size
of her victory, Merkel must harness partners for her new government. Judging by
the constraints she now faces, the coalition she is likely to create might
ultimately trigger her political decline.
Ironically, the size of
Merkel’s victory complicates her coalition-building effort, since it came at the
expense of her natural coalition ally, the Free Democrats’s economic liberals,
whose 4.8% of the electorate fell just short of Germany’s 5% threshold. A
similar fate befell the young Alternative for Germany, which promised to undo
the euro and end Germany’s financing of bailout plans for southern Europe’s
Between them, the two parties siphoned nearly one in 10
voters, thus depriving Merkel of the kind of conservative partners with whom she
might have ruled comfortably, the way she did the past four years with the Free
Democrats. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the Greens and the
farleft Linke, which have won between them some 17%, are ideologically
unworkable for Merkel. That is why she is expected to team up with the Social
Merkel already was once in such a broad coalition, back
when she rose to power in 2005. While that worked well for Germany and for
Merkel, it damaged her partners, who were seen as someone else’s apprentices.
Now back in Merkel’s picture as her only realistic coalition partners, the SPD
is expected to make demands she can doubtfully afford to heed.
demands a minimum wage law based on an election promise of an hourly 8.5 euros.
In addition, the party seeks new social spending at home and greater German
allocations for the war on other Europeans’ youth joblessness, which in France,
Italy and Spain is respectively 26, 40 and 56%, as opposed to Germany’s
Such causes are problematic for Merkel both ideologically and
practically. Ideologically, they challenge her small government and low taxation
convictions, while on the practical level they would require the kind of
spending that can ruin Merkel’s universally applauded budgetary discipline and
WHILE THE economies of Britain, France, the US and
Japan accrued mounting debts and yawning deficits, Merkel’s frugality kept
Germany well in the black. Opening the fiscal faucets now, in line with the
SPD’s demands, might lead Germany into the debt tunnel where its neighbors
arrived last decade, and remain lost to this day.
Worse, implying that
Germany is now prepared to display greater flexibility on bailouts might make
the continent’s already severe debt crisis spiral out of control. Since the
outbreak of the Greek crisis last decade, Merkel has been accused of abandoning
the EU’s weaker economies to their devices.
Merkel responded bravely when
she traveled to Greece last year, though she knew she would be greeted there by
thousands of angry and even obscene protesters.
When she emerged it was
evident that Merkel had jumped into the flames, which is why pundits agreed she
had become the strongest person in Europe. However, she did not reinvent the
situation. On the one hand, Germany remained the main source of Greece’s – and
everyone else’s – bailout plans, and Merkel promised to oppose Greece’s ouster
from the euro zone. On the other hand, she made no concessions concerning the
draconian austerity measures imposed on Greece in turn for its
Indeed, that is what Merkelism is about: no magic, no fireworks,
no improvisation, humor or wit, only a lot of hard work, consistency and polite
resolve all aimed at upholding what she inherited from others.
first eight years, this formula worked well. Now, however, history is likely to
demand of Merkel more than merely preserving other people’s legacies.
THIRD term curse, whereby leaders like Thatcher, Blair and Kohl ran out of
wisdom, humility and luck, would menace Merkel even if circumstances had not
been as ominous as they are.
Alas, besides standing to be pressured from
within her own government to overspend, the problems outside will only worsen –
as southern Europe’s ailments will refuse to go away and in fact, spread
further, to some of the post-communist lands and possibly to Italy as well. That
is when history will come knocking and demand of Merkel what until now she did
not display: originality, inventiveness and charisma.
Until now, Merkel’s
apparent lack of these was part of her success. The euro was already there,
others had invented it, and Merkel’s task was to preserve it. The values of
diligence, frugality and caution with which she is identified had also been
there before Merkel. And as for charisma and pizzazz, the German voter seemed
uninterested in them.
As long as her task was to preserve things,
Merkel’s colorless personality and unassuming East German origins sufficed, and
even charmed. Now they won’t.
NOT ONLY will Europe’s problems demand
historic action – so will Germany’s.
The night the Berlin Wall fell,
Willy Brandt memorably said: “Now, what belongs together will grow
The Germans indeed came together, but they did not grow.
Instead, they shrank. With German women having an average of 1.4 children,
demographers warn that at its current fertility rate Germany will in less than a
half-century lose one fifth of its population.
Whether this has to do
with the German economy’s low growth rate remains to be seen, but in the long
run a shrinking nation clearly can’t fuel a growing economy.
population aging rapidly – today’s 30% elderly will be 50% in two decades – and
with immigration causing social gaps and frictions, Merkel will be required to
do more than analyze the situation, as she did when she declared
multiculturalism a failure. Now Merkel will be expected not just to withstand
history, but to shape it, the way Kohl did when he used the end of the Cold War
to reunite Germany, the way Konrad Adenauer did when he looked west and fathered
the New Germany, and the way Brandt did when he looked east and launched
Can Merkel affect Germany’s long-term course? Can she, for
instance, inspire young Germans to have more children, as the situation clearly
demands, even while she is herself a childless career woman? Will she have the
vision to lead Europe to a new path, which could involve the euro’s abandonment,
a twotrack currency or full fiscal unification? Until now, Merkel has been so
short of new ideas that her election slogan was simply “Chancellor.” Now she
will have to introduce and market ideas, if she is to be remembered as a
Merkel emerged from within the cracks of the fallen
Berlin Wall, first as a spokesperson for the last East German government, then
as a lawmaker, minister and Kohl’s protégé, and finally as the improbable leader
of a reunited Germany. Today, her task is to emerge from the cracks of the euro
as the builder of a united Europe. Hopefully, the failures that her new term
might have in store for her will not eclipse the successes that preceded it.