The Outsider (Part VI): ‘The Physicist of Power (2005-2021)’

Politicians are under brutal public scrutiny at the best of times, and women, in particular, are placed under a microscope, often with a highly sexist lens. Merkel had spruced up her image as opposition leader in the early 2000s. But her first term as chancellor would cement her carefully crafted public image, which, unbelievably, remained relatively unchanged for the next sixteen years.

She ditched her unfashionable haircuts from the 1990s in favour of a modern but not ostentatious style. Short and, like many top politicians, struggling with her weight, Merkel’s wardrobe largely consisted of dark trousers, smart jackets in dark or pastel colours, as well as dark low-heeled shoes. She wore little jewellery and very understated make-up, largely to cover up the cracks of time and the unrelenting stress political leaders are under. Everything about this image was controlled, signalling moderation as well as continuity. Rather tellingly, it was designed to draw little, if any, attention, to the chancellor’s gender.

Merkel’s personal life was entirely unremarkable, with no personal scandals. In her spare time (of which there was little), she liked to cook for her husband and listen to opera. Germany’s first ‘first husband’, Professor Joachim Sauer, was leading quantum chemist at the Humboldt University of Berlin. When, after his wife had become chancellor, he was greeted by the assembled German press at his university, he asked the reporters to kindly step aside because he had to get on with a lecture.

Interestingly, Merkel’s educational background is also relevant for her public image. Politicians with a STEM-background are relatively rare, especially if educated at doctoral level. Neither her colleagues nor the German media knew how to handle this. Some paper referred to her as the ‘Physikerin der Macht’ (literally: the physicist of power). She was often portrayed according to scientific stereotypes: intelligent, rational, and analytical, if slightly socially awkward. Not necessarily bad stereotypes, and certainly different from the ones more commonly applied to female politicians, for example, incompetent and insecure (Theresa May); aggressive and masculine (Margaret Thatcher), ‘Lady Macbeth’ – devious and scheming (Hillary Clinton); or emotional and empathetic (Jacinda Ardern).   

Many Germans appreciated Merkel’s unfussy style. She had consistently high personal ratings, even if her party did not. This is one important factor in explaining her longevity as chancellor. This even holds true during her most controversial time in office, the summer of 2015 when up to one-million Syrian refugees entered German state territory. Contrary to perception in the UK, her poll ratings never collapsed. True, her approval ratings fell at the time and only slowly recovered. But to speak of a collapse is an exaggeration.

Her boring image certainly resonated during times of crisis, and she was seen as competent crisis manager. The Finanzkrise (financial crisis), Atomkrise (Fukushima reactor catastrophe), Eurokrise (Euro crisis), Fluechtlingskrise (refugee crisis), and Coronakrise (Covid-19 pandemic) all fell into her 16 -year reign as chancellor. She survived them all.

In addition to her popularity, I think there are two further factors that explain her longevity. First, there was the structural, ideological, and political crisis of the German left. During the Merkel years, due to Germany’s electoral system, with its mixture of First-Past-The-Post and proportional representation, there were three potential coalition formations available to the left:

  1. Rot-Gruen (SPD & Green Party): a continuation of the Schroeder-Fischer coalition from 1998 – 2005;
  2. The so-called Ampelkoalition(literally: traffic light coalition): SPD & Green Party & FDP (yellow, liberals);
  3. Rot-Rot-Gruen: SPD & Die Linke (post-communists) & Green Party.

Neither of these three options was electorally or politically feasible. With the SPD’s declining vote share since Schroeder, a rerun of Rot-Gruen was not electorally possible. Nor was the reverse: Gruen-Rot, i.e., a centre-left coalition where the Green Party would be senior coalition partner, with the SPD acting as the junior partner.

The Ampelkoalitionwas not feasible, either. This is partly due to the ideological estrangement between the FDP and the SPD (and the Greens). Since the 1980s, the FDP has largely shed its socially liberal wing in favour of its pro-business and pro-market wing. Even with the rightward shift of the SPD under Gerhard Schroeder, there have been insufficient ideological commonalities for an Ampelkoalition.

What, then, about Rot-Rot-Gruen? So far, I haven’t said much about Die Linke. Certainly, its choice of name is anything but humble. It suggests that the party sees itself as the true guardian of the German left. (I am having a slight déjà vu here after Labour’s flirtation with Corbyn which was as morally self-righteous as it was electorally disastrous.) Die Linke is the successor of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei (SED – Socialist Unity Party) that ruled over communist East Germany from 1949 until the reunification. It remains a tapestry of hard left groups: old SED cadres, East Germans nostalgic for the German Democratic Republic, West German trade unionists disappointed with the SPD, Marxists, New Left activists, and pragmatic democratic socialists interested in governing.

The ideological gaps remain too great between Die Linke and the other two parties for Rot-Rot-Gruen to work. Further, while the SPD has been happy to cooperate with Die Linke at the level of the Laender, especially in the former East Germany where Die Linke has its electoral strongholds, the SPD leadership is well aware that the prospect of an involvement of Die Linke in a national government would be an electoral gift to the CDU. The CDU would run a ‘Reds under the Beds’ campaign against Rot-Rot-Gruen, of the kind it ran successfully in the 1950 and the 1990s. At national level, the SPD was keen to maintain a cordon sanitaire. In a nutshell, the German left, during the Merkel years, had no realistic path to power.

The final factor for Mrs Merkel’s longevity as chancellor was her ability to form grand coalitions (grosse Koalition, Groko) between the two main centre-left and centre-right parties (CDU/CSU and SPD). She was only able to form the more natural coalition government between the CDU/CSU and the liberal FDP between 2009-2013. It was a disaster for the FDP whose politicians turned out to be incompetent and unpopular in equal measure.  It is not surprising, then, that in the general election of 2013, German voters booted the FDP out of the German parliament. Merkel’s natural coalition partner was gone.

Apart from Groko, Merkel would have had two further options for governing: to either form a minority government and secure the necessary votes from other parties on a policy-by-policy basis or to enter into a confidence and supply agreement with another party, which would have fallen short of an official coalition agreement in scope and depth. Yet, three times in the last 16 years (2005, 2013, and 2017), the SPD leadership entered into Grokos with the CDU, often reluctantly. The Groko seemed the natural vehicle for Merkel’s style of governing. Some hesitation and dithering, consensus politics (rather than adversarial politics), a bit of conservatism here, a bit of soft-leftish social democracy there – sorted! In German politics, the joke was that SPD ministers would do all the hard work, and Merkel got all the credit

Despite its centrality to German politics for twelve of Mrs Merkel’s sixteen year in power, Groko was neither liked by the CDU nor the SPD. Conservatives feared that the SPD would drag the CDU too far to the left, whereas many social-democrats argued that the SPD needed time in opposition to re-position itself politically, ideologically, and electorally. While delivering stable and effective government, Groko led to soul searching on the German right and left.

Why, then, did the SPD leadership agree to Groko no less than three times? I think there were two main explanations. First, it is better to be in power than out of power. If you want to implement some of your preferred policies, you can only do this from within government. And the CDU did have to make some concessions to the SPD, taking Merkel’s Grokos into a soft social democratic direction.

Second, there is a clear case for country-over-party. Political instability in a country the size of Germany is not desirable. True, a minority government or confidence and supply agreement would have meant that Merkel had to work harder to secure parliamentary majorities. Perhaps this would have taken off some of her electoral sheen. But this would have also rendered the German government less efficient. Yes, the road towards Groko was sometimes bumpy, as the coalition talks after the 2017 election showed. But once formal coalition agreements were in place, the three Grokos delivered relatively smooth governance at national level.

So, there you have it, I don’t think Merkel, the physicist of power, was a strategic genius. Rather, in addition to her 1) personal popularity, she came to power at a time when 2) the German left was undergoing a deep crisis, and where 3) the SPD leadership was repeatedly willing to enter into grand coalitions to help her secure a workable parliamentary majority. Still, Mrs Merkel was able to exploit the weaknesses of her internal (within the CDU) and external opponents (the German left). And that is what politics is about more often than not – not necessarily grand visions but the ability to recognise and utilise your opponents’ weaknesses to your own advantage. It kept her in power for sixteen years.