In four chapters, I'll cover Merkel's origins, her rise to power, the fall of big rival Roland Koch, and the resignation and replacement of Germany's figurehead President.
To explain Merkel, one has to start with her promoter and role model, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Kohl is in the history books as the father of German Reunification, the great promoter of Franco-German Rappochement, the leader into an era of prosperity in the eighties, and overall a successful politician with a very long reign (1982-1998).
But it was also Kohl who, for pure electioneering reasons, implemented the populist measure to convert East German D-Marks to West German D-Marks 1:1 (thereby making East German industry uncompetitive overnight, with catastrophic results lasting to this day); this was one of many steps for fast Reunification taken on a campaign-trail whim without even informing Mitterrand & Thatcher beforehand; it was his finance minister who is responsible for the Growth & Stability Pact; and stasis became a bit too apparent towards the end of his long reign.
For the real Kohl was another seasoned political operator who was first and foremost interested in staying on top. Kohl's number-one maxim was to wait longer than anyone else, thus letting impatient rivals self-destruct. If that means government inaction, who cares?
Kohl ruled his Christian Democrats (CDU) like a mafia don, slowly eliminating all potential rivals, with Wolfgang Schäuble (the present finance minister) acting as his consigliere, thus earning the position as designated successor with unreserved loyalty. But no one calculated with the least powerful junior minister.
Angela Merkel was a young East German
nuclear physicist specialising in theoretical chemistry, who cared little about politics until 1989. Her route to the CDU was more or less accidental, she was not a Catholic like most of the CDU, and she was by no means a one-earner-family social conservative (she lived together with her second partner without remarrying): so she had nothing to build a power base upon. Indeed Kohl, who just called her das Mädchen (the girl) made her a minister as token East German female.
In 1994, Merkel moved from the youth ministry to the environment ministry. And that's where she first showed her fangs, in surviving her first crisis.
The Kohl government practised a pro-nuclear policy, in which the economy ministry acted as advocate, and the environment ministry gave the stamps of approval. (Also see Nuclear dump (of final storage and German elections).) Among others, for the CASTOR nuclear waste transport containers, touted as absolutely safe. Then, in 1998, it was revealed that the outside of the containers regularly showed contamination orders of magnitude higher than the health safety limit -- and that this was kept from the public. Even if (hard to believe) she was not in the know, the environment minister owns the failure of nuclear oversight. But Merkel pre-empted uneasy questions with a theatrical public attack against the nuclear industry and its secretiveness, and a temporary CASTOR ban.
The same year, she polished up her image for conservatives by marrying her longtime partner.
The Black Widow
When Kohl lost the 1998 elections, Schäuble finally took over as party chairman, and, bypassing other senior party members, made Merkel party secretary. But then, just when the CDU hoped to benefit from the bad start of the SPD-Greens government, it was hit by the big party donations scandal. This was a number of connected affairs involving kickbacks, undeclared large donations, and secret Swiss accounts. The black accounts weren't used for personal enrichment but as emergency campaign funds, used by Kohl personally (also against inner-party rivals).
No senior CDU leader dared to attack the godfather, ignoring that even the party base was demoralised. But Merkel recognised that this was her moment to get the base: she put herself in position by being the first to speak out, tossing away her promoter.
Schäuble tagged along. But Kohl was none too happy about his onetime right-hand man denying his involvement, and the two got into a war of contradictory statements. And Merkel? She coldly stood aside, not saying a word to help her boss and ally. And thus Schäuble fell too -- and Merkel was at hand as successor.
Even at this stage, the senior Kohl-era ex-ministers and state PMs (as well as most of the media) believed that Merkel was a temporary solution, a powerless token chair(wo)man who would stand aside once the boys chose the next top dog amongst themselves. But they should have paid more attention. They were up against someone who, according to a story, upon hearing some communications expert go on about how having aides trailing you and keeping a larger distance in conversation gives an aura of power, instantly got herself two aides as permanent shadow and began to keep the distance.
Indeed Merkel quickly sidelined Kohl's meek old guard, by bypassing them for loyal no-names in important positions. One to remember is Friedrich Merz, then federal parliament faction leader. But, Merkel overlooked a more potent circle of opponents: the next generation, the Andenpakt.
Once upon a time, a bunch of young CDU hotshots was on a plane to visit Pinochet's Chile. All of them ambitious, they swore to support each other in their rise, and never run against each other or call for the other's resignation: thus was the 'Andes Pact' born. Almost two decades later, three members were PMs of their respective states, two held top positions in the EP, several more were in other top positions. And, ahead of the 2002 federal elections, they organised a coup against the party chairman.
Behind Merkel's back, and involving Merz too, a consensus was built that Merkel shall be bypassed as chancellor candidate. She was then to be presented with a fait accompli, and forced to resign upon resisting. However, Merkel survived by personally offering the chancellor candidate position to the PM of Bavaria and leader of sister party CSU, Edmund Stoiber. (For a profile see Stoiber goes.) But this, again, turned to Merkel's benefit: Stoiber was too unpopular in Northern Germany and was no match for Schröder in televised debate, and took the blame for the election loss.
After the election, Merkel claimed the faction leader position, pushing disloyal Merz into the deputy seat. But neutralising him took two more years, because Merz built up an image as the CDU's finance expert. However, not allowed to lead anything, finally he resigned, and became the closest thing to a hardcore neoliberal ideologue in the media (also see A shift of the frame).
Meanwhile, the Andenpakt didn't rest. In another failed drive to oust Merkel, they even got Bush to slight Merkel, by not meeting her but receiving Andenpakt top dog Roland Koch, then PM of Hessen state. Koch & co would regularly attempt to set the federal CDU's policy without consulting Merkel, trying to capitalise on her lack of economic expertise, lack of social conservative values, and supposed womanly weakness.
Merkel's counter-attack was two-pronged. On one hand, she tried and successfully loosened the bonds by courting some Andenpakt members individually. On the other hand, also with a view to the apparent only possible future coalition partner, the (by then neo-)liberal FDP, Merkel re-styled herself as neoliberal revolutionary, and sought the company of the top dogs of the economy. That way, she managed to regain the initiative within her party, and cruised towards... a bad election result.
In the 2005 elections, CDU/CSU+FDP had no absolute majority, and the CDU finished just ahead of the SPD. Outgoing chancellor Schröder promptly demanded that he should stay in office if there is a Grand Coalition. New elections? That's what Koch hoped for (see Germany: Nightmare Scenario). But Merkel just faced off Schröder until the SPD faltered, and managed to put together the Grand Coalition. And then watched from above.
While the coalition partners sparred openly, Merkel took up the (entirely fake) posture of a neutral head of state. That way, she (1) won popularity with the electorate, (2) got the conservative wing of her party to focus their growls at SPD leaders for non-right-wing policies, (3) could rob the SPD of its centre-left themes, while the SPD could always be pushed into an identity crisis regarding its left flank.
So, while the global financial crisis began to reach Europe, Merkel squared both her inner-party rivals and the Schröderite old guard of the SPD, and soared in the polls ahead of the next federal elections. However, given the sentiments within her party, she again had no choice but to publicly aim towards a coalition with the FDP. This time, Grand Coalition-weary conservative swing voters voted for the same. The problem was that, while Merkel learnt her lesson in 2005, the FDP became even more insane and wanted tax cuts while deficits exploded. Still, this is what SPIEGEL wrote back then (and where I took the chapter title from):
The Black Widow Chancellor
First the Social Democrats and now the Free Democrats: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's new political partners need to beware the fate of their predecessors. The FDP is perilously wrong if it thinks it can achieve mass tax cuts. Merkel squeezed the blood out of the SPD and could easily do it again.
Exactly that happened, albeit at a rather high price.
Merkel first pushed through the FDP's first round of tax cuts, only then did she give the outrage from her own comrades free rein. Note that Germany is a federal country, with its states having tax income of their own, so it was just the CDU's regional PMs who spearheaded the opposition -- including the normally reliably neoliberal Andenpakt guys (one of whom, Baden-Württenberg PM Günther Oettinger, Merkel got rid of by making him EU Commissioner for energy). Meanwhile the FDP's poll numbers tanked. Then came the election in Northrhine-Westphalia state (NRW; ruled by a CDU-FDP coalition too), the negative result of which Merkel used to finally rule out further tax cuts.
In the process, Germany's economic policy became a mess, Germany contributed to the "Euro crisis", lost EU-level respect and influence, and Merkel was blasted for lack of leadership at home. But, the only power miscalculation I can see is: the NRW CDU's losses were so heavy that the hoped-for replacement of the FDP with the Greens was no more an option.
Then came two high-profile resignations.
The Most Brutal Investigator Possible
Regular ET readers will be familiar with (now ex-)PM of Hessen state, Roland Koch, but it's worth to recap who was Merkel's worst rival. If there was one macho politician in Germany it was him. Koch was a reckless demagogue exploiting xenophobic and anti-poor stereotypes, a law-and-order populist, also winning the support of the base by playing culture warrior, a Big Industry shill also playing market-fundie rambo, a provocateur setting the tone in federal-level politics with own initiatives, a rhetorical sharp-shooter who knows how to get into the media. Think Sarko without a need for stage management.
Koch won his very first election in 1999 by fanning the flames of xenophobia with a signature collection against the federal government's plans for a law legalising double citizenship.
Soon after he got in power, the CDU's big party donations scandal (see previous section) blew up. One of the schemes involved Koch's predecessors in the Hessen CDU. So Koch did a Merkel, in his own style: he theatrically called for a brutalstmögliche Aufklärung (c. = the most brutal investigation possible) if the CDU shall survive. This became a catchphrase, especially after it became known that by the time of that speech, überbrutal investigator Koch was already informed and sought to bury the affair. But his support base overlooked and forgot that.
Koch was busy building connections with powerful people -- including US neocons. His strongest ties were with Tommy Thompson, Bush's first Secretary of Health and Human Services and governor of Wisconsin prior to that, and advocated the import of Thompson's welfare-ending "Wisconsin Works" programme under the name "Wisconsin Model".
In 2002, the CDU's right wing was busy torpedoing a new law to regulate the residency of foreign nationals. The SPD used a procedural trick (later ruled unconstitutional, but known in advance) to get it across the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat (which consists of the state governments). The CDU PMs reacted with seemingly spontaneous anger, with Koch taking the lead by interrupting the Speaker and hitting his desk with his fist. But a colleague revealed that the whole show was planned in advance, earning Koch 'praises' for good acting from professionals.
None of this, nor his close association with American neocons in the run-up to the Iraq War did prevent Koch's re-election in 2003: the Schröder government's then low popularity helped, as did more law-and-order campaigning.
Back on the stage, despite his rhetorical war on the Left, Koch didn't hold back from working together with an SPD colleague, when it came to upstaging Merkel with neolib policy proposals: with then PM of NRW, later federal finance minister Peer Steinbrück, Koch co-authored the infamous Koch-Steinbrück-Papier, a list of proposed subvention cuts based on shoddy calculations.
All the while, Koch's government in the strongman's home state was... less than successful. Neither on the economic front, nor in crime, and least of all in education. But, come next election, Koch thought to rely on tried and tested xenophobic demagoguery: he thematised the foreign citizenship of youth criminals after the beating of a pensioner in Munich's subway. But then a miracle happened: his opponent, a non-macho woman who got the Hessen SPD a decidedly leftist election programme putting the dormant Fundie wing of the Greens to shame, chose frontal attack and trashed Koch just on his supposed strengths (see "Immigrant youth crime": from campaign theme to blowback for the German Right, and Y) -- and Koch's CDU crashed (see f.e. Spinning the German left swing).
Unfortunately, that's where the miracle ended: Andrea Ypsilanti's SPD and the Greens needed the Left Party for majority, and that was the point on which the SPD self-destructed. Koch watched the show with his caretaker government, then was re-elected. But, he was damaged good.
Still, Koch did not stop making trouble for Merkel with provocative policy initiatives. The last time, right after the NRW CDU's big election loss: Koch called on the federal government to regain the initiative (that is, er, to follow Koch's initiative...) by getting serious about the budget deficit. And he had specific proposals: let's start with cuts in education and daycare!
Koch was playing to old conservative notions: the ones about students paying for education services, and about pre-school institutions threatening the survival of the Christian family. But, times have changed: instead of setting the tone, Koch earned outraged rejection even from arch-conservative Bavaria, not to mention Merkel's allies in the federal government.
I think that was when Koch saw that his career advance was over, and I think that that was the real reason behind his out-of-the-blue resignation on 25 May. (For the record, he claimed private reasons, and let leaks claim that he planned it a year in advance, but then why did he kept trying to upstage Merkel?)
Throughout Koch's ten-year amok run, Merkel held to Kohl's maxim about waiting longer than all rivals and let them self-destruct: she never publicly opposed or even criticised the strongman enjoying the support of both the economic-liberal and social-conservative wings, and even tagged along when Koch managed to take the policy initiative (even in the foreign youth crime controversy). Now that's over. To boot, for lack of a replacement for Koch on the CDU's Right, or its economic-liberal wing, the whole CDU is bound to move closer to Merkel's actual ideological views (if she has any left after all the manoeuvring), that is towards the left. Then again, that's still somewhere 25 years in the past. And, for conservatives, there is still the free-wheeling Bavarian CSU.
But, the departure of the big rival won't necessarily make the Chancellor's life easier. After all, she could use the rivalry with Koch also as a good cop-bad cop routine, putting her in a more favourable light. Now she will be judged on her own.
The offended President and the Wulff in sheep's clothing
Let's jump back to 2004, when Merkel was solidifying her control over her own party and began to aim for a coalition with the FDP. One of her strategic moves was the choice of candidate for federal President.
Germany's federal President is elected for five years by a special body, consisting (mostly) of the federal parliament and delegations of the regional parliaments. It is a figurehead job, usually taken as semi-retirement by elder statesmen. Indeed Wolfgang Schäuble, after being sidelined by Merkel, wanted the job. But, instead, Merkel picked someone fresh, a non-politician to symbolise her then new neolib direction: outgoing IMF head Horst Köhler.
Köhler won the Presidency, and, initially, he was a success for Merkel: he was popular with the media, as well as, to my neverending sorrow, the populace. However, the ceremonial job was always a straitjacket for Köhler, who wanted to talk about policy -- and did, often earning controversy.
This became complicated when the desired CDU/CSU-FDP coalition did not came in 2005, and even more when the global financial crisis approached. Köhler suddenly began to criticise irresponsible bankiers (possibly not unrelated to standing for re-election last year) -- earning controversy in other quarters, and the cold shoulder of the Chancellor. Köhler must have been especially fed up with being an observer of how the CDU/CSU-FDP coalition, finally arriving last year, descended in chaos.
Köhler continued to court controversy. The last time in a radio interview he gave on 22 May on a plane transporting him back from a visit of troops in Afghanistan. In that interview, again deviating strongly from the non-partisan ideal of his job, Köhler sought to defend the unpopular military mission -- and veered a bit too far off in the theoretical (my transcript & translation):
|Meine Einschätzung ist aber, dass insgesamt wir auf dem Wege sind, doch auch in..in der Breite der Gesellschaft zu verstehen, dass ein Land unserer Größe mit dieser Außenhandelsorientierung und damit auch Außenhandelsabhängigkeit auch wissen muss, dass im Zweifel, im Notfall, auch militärischer Einsatz notwendig ist, um unsere Interessen zu wahren, zum Beispiel... freie Handelswege, zum Beispiel... ganze regionale Instabilitäten zu verhindern, die mit Sicherheit dann auch auf unsere Chancen zurückschlagen - negativ durch Handel, Arbeitsplätze und Einkommen - alles das soll diskutiert werden, und ich glaube wir hier auf einem nicht so schlechten Weg.||However, it is my assessment that, all in all, we are on the way to understand even a..across the width of society, that a country of our size with this external trade orientation, and with that external trade dependence, should also know that, when in doubt, in a state of emergency, a military action is necessary, too, to defend our interests, for example... free trade routes, for example... preventing whole regional instabilities, which will then hit back at our chances with a certainty - negatively via trade, jobs and income - all that should be discussed, and in this regard, I believe we are on a not that bad route.|
Note that Köhler didn't say anything revolutionary: something similar is in Germany's official general military strategy. But Köhler managed to connect it to Afghanistan... Reaction was negative from all sides:
Jürgen Trittin, of the Green Party, said on Thursday the president's comments were not consistent with Germany's constitution and that "we don't need gun boat diplomacy nor do we need a loose rhetorical cannon as our head of state." Thomas Oppermann, a parliamentarian with the opposition Social Democrats, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that "Köhler is jeopardizing the acceptance of the German military's missions abroad."
Criticism also came from within Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition. Ruprecht Polenz, the foreign policy spokesman for Merkel's Christian Democrats said "it was not a very successful formulation, to put it mildly." Rainer Stinner, of the business-friendly Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partner, said: "We are not in Afghanistan out of any economic interests, rather we are there to stabilize the country and curtail international terrorism."
Köhler was none too pleased, especially with the lack of support from his own political camp. He decided to resign with immediate effect on 31 May -- earning further criticism for lack of toleration of criticism and irresponsibility, and vindictiveness in his four-paragraph resignation letter:
|Meine Äußerungen zu Auslandseinsätzen der Bundeswehr am 22. Mai dieses Jahres sind auf heftige Kritik gestoßen. Ich bedauere, dass meine Äußerungen in einer für unsere Nation wichtigen und schwierigen Frage zu Missverständnissen führen konnten. Die Kritik geht aber so weit, mir zu unterstellen, ich befürwortete Einsätze der Bundeswehr, die vom Grundgesetz nicht gedeckt wären. Diese Kritik entbehrt jeder Rechtfertigung. Sie lässt den notwendigen Respekt für mein Amt vermissen.||My pronouncements regarding foreign missions of the German army on 22 May of the current year were met with severe criticism. I regret that my pronouncements could have led to misunderstandings in a question so important and difficult for our nation. However, the criticism went so far as to impute that I support missions of the German army which aren't covered by the German constitution. This criticism lacks any justification. It is lacking in the necessary respect for my job.|
Now Merkel could pick a candidate for successor. And whom did she pick? If you read all of the above, it should be obvious: a rival for power. In fact, the last serious contender remaining.
The PM of Lower Saxony state (who beat the SPD's current leader for the job), Christian Wulff, is another Andenpakt guy. However, unlike rowdies Koch and Oettinger, he is a smooth-talker who usually avoids open conflict, and looks for the political centre -- in fact, a lot like Merkel. By 2008, with Koch weakened, Wulff was treated as crown prince. Although Merkel believed that she brought Wulff to her side (in fact it was Wullf who revealed the Pact's very existence to Merkel), he tried to upstage Merkel, too. Albeit in his own style, with veiled attacks: during Andrea Ypsilanti's attempt to become PM of Hessen state with Left Party support, Wulff called for a dissolution of the federal Grand Coalition in the case Ypsilanti succeeds; weeks later, ET reported how he directed blame for losses in another regional election towards Merkel; and ET also reported how he tried to
force Merkel's hand in the 2009 coalition talks with the FDP.
Wulff's most significant scandal I can remember was cheating on and then divorcing his wife, not really fit for a Catholic-conservative role model; but that didn't hurt him, it seems even the Lower Saxony CDU's right wing moved beyond the Pope. More damaging was his recent decision to install Germany's first ethnic-Turkish minister, who promptly proclaimed that she wants all religious symbols to disappear from classrooms -- including crucifixes. But that still hardly qualifies as lasting damage, so it is a bit surprising that Wulff didn't reject Merkel's offer of the Presidency and waited on to inherit her.
The CDU/CSU and the FDP will have a majority in the President-electing assembly, but the SPD did try its best to spoil Merkel's party: they chose Joachim Gauck as candidate. Gauck was the longtime head of the authority overseeing the files of East German secret service Stasi, and enjoys high respect as such. For once, the SPD put the Left Party in a difficult position, and the CDU will have a hard time attacking Gauck or explaining why Wulff is a better figurehead.
Now Merkel finally achieved it: she stands above all others, and there is no serious contender on the horizon. But what has she achieved while on the top? Not even double-edged signature policies of the magnitude of Reunification for Kohl. Let's call this the paradox of power: if the price for ever more power is that you can't use it to do what you want, do you really have power?
History doesn't repeat itself, but there are ever more parallels with the Kohl era. Indeed the defining word of the end of that era was Reformstau ( = reform logjam), which was voiced not just by neolibs, and Merkel's government is now in the same position.
And who could succeed Merkel? If history does repeat itself, look out for one of Merkel's newest promotions: environment minister Norbert Röttgen. (You already saw some sign of ambition in Quo vadis, German energy policy?.)