The Germans are saying goodbye to their "Iron Frau. On September 26, Germany will answer the question that has recently been discussed only by lazybones: who will replace 67-year-old Angela Merkel as Chancellor, and most importantly, will something change in world politics with her departure. All 16 years of her rule Merkel had to be a crisis manager of her country and solve the most important issues of world politics: global climate change, the collapse of financial markets, humanitarian disasters and, finally, the consequences of the pandemic coronavirus. At the same time in Germany, Merkel does not cease to be accused of the fact that it was she who led the economy into recession, hit one of the major industries - the automotive industry, and with her unilateral decision opened the borders for thousands of migrants. Lenta.ru is interested in how Merkel has changed German and world politics, what Germany will lose with her departure and what Europe will look like after the next Bundestag elections, political analyst and chairman of the Bismarck Society in Moscow, Mikhail Golovanov.
The end of an era
"Lenta.ru": What does Angela Merkel's rule mean for Germany?
Michael Golovanov: Merkel is really a unique phenomenon. She is the first woman-chancellor in the German history, she has been in this position for 16 years already, more than the founder of Germany Konrad Adenauer. And Adolf Hitler, as you know, ruled Germany for only 12 years. Merkel's enemies often remind her of this political longevity: for example, they compare her to President Vladimir Putin, who is severely criticized in Berlin for his irremovability.
Much of Merkel's early career owes its start to the patronage of Helmut Kohl, the well-respected chancellor who unified Germany in 1990. But it is unlikely that she would have risen to the position of chancellor without her strong personal qualities and some luck.
Still, what allowed Merkel to rule for so long and during that time, according to Forbes, to become the strongest female politician in the world and the most trustworthy leader?
Merkel has very precisely "hit" the mentality of the German average man: it is no coincidence that she is called Mutti, that is, "mommy. She really is, in a sense, a mother to the Germans, the embodiment of the archetype of the legendary Mother Germany from the works of German Romantics. She well expresses the burgher desire for maternal affection and care, the desire "to cling to the mother's breast" of the social state.
Merkel's origins in the East German elite played an important role. Her father was a Lutheran priest who voluntarily emigrated in the 1950s from Germany to the GDR, where he succeeded as a loyalist pastor to the Communist regime. Having passed through the pioneers and the Komsomol, Merkel became a successful compromise figure in the early noughties to "stitch together" the chasm between the lands of the former GDR and the FRG. At the moment the Berlin Wall fell (1989), people with quite different mentalities found themselves in the same country.
By the way, is this still reflected in the elections?
Yes, the electoral map of Germany resembles Ukraine - west and east vote differently because they have different ideas about life. Residents of the eastern lands are more conservative. Unlike the "Wessies," who were raised in a left-liberal spirit, the "Wessies" received a traditional Soviet education. They are more critical of what the mainstream media tells them because they have experience of living in a socialist system under the intrusive pressure of propaganda. It makes sense that the Alternative for Germany, described as "right-wing populist," has a base in the east (Saxony and Thuringia), while the leftist Green Party, for example, is strong in the west.
Merkel has become a compromise figure for Germany, but what do you think has made her popular with Germans?
Let's remember Merkel's business, managerial qualities: as her era has shown, they were quite worthy. The chancellor has been through many crises - the financial crisis in the eurozone, the war in Ukraine, the migration crisis, and she continued to lead the country during the pandemic. Now we can see how the country is recovering from the coronavirus crisis with minimal losses, and she has also generally coped with previous challenges. Merkel's talents as a negotiator and international communicator are also beyond doubt.
But for 16 years in power, she has grown weary of Germans. This weariness has been accumulating for a long time and has become clearly visible over time. The slogan Merkel muss weg ("Merkel must go") has long been a political meme on social networks and in the streets. And Merkel herself seems to be tired of the burden of power, and of the German people, too - notes of arrogance and detachment began to appear in her speech. In recent years the Chancellor's approval rating has been steadily going down. Now even her own party is weighing on Merkel, and it is time for her "mommy" to retire.
What was the point of the critical accumulation of this fatigue? When was fatigue at its peak?
Research by sociologists shows that Merkel's position was undermined above all by the migration crisis of 2015. When she willfully opened the borders and let two million migrants into the country. Of course, this greatly affected both the reputation of the head of state and the reputation of her party. This was the turning point after which her popularity began to decline.
Under Merkel, the main post-war principle of German society - money in exchange for peace of mind - has been destroyed. Being the main donor to the European Union (EU), pulling on the economies of the depressed southern countries, was not enough.
For the first time in many years, the Germans have not been able to buy off problems! These "problems" crossed the borders in small groups of 30-50 thousand. And the good Mutti, instead of closing the gates tightly, only opened her arms wider. And bypassing the German constitution and European law, as the critics claim.
This is no longer a TV picture, not an ideological tinsel. This is a way of life. That is, the environment, the quality of life. Household life is more important than politics for the average person, and that is precisely where the blow was delivered. Yes, the economy is stable, milk was still 49 cents and so it is. But wild migrants have brought visible evidence of change to the streets of German cities.
Increased crime, ethnic strife - these were the flowers, but soon the berries came. On New Year's Eve 2016, dozens of women were raped in Cologne, police failed to act, terrorists who arrived with migrants repeatedly attacked people and crushed Christmas fairs with trucks. The Islamist terror was a milestone in Merkel's rule.
People quickly realized the simple connection between the chancellor's policies and social change. Now children go to school in fear of being bullied by Arab youths, whereas before there was no such thing. Whose fault is that? That's the simple, reptilian logic many Germans had, and it played a role in public attitudes toward Merkel.
The failure with migrants led to the emergence of a new generation of non-systemic opposition - angry city dwellers, quite respectable burghers, not previously seen as sympathetic to radical ideas. They were united by their rejection of Merkel and the policies of the "old" systemic parties in general, which they saw as having broken away from the people and ceased to be distinct from one another. These non-partisan groups have bled a lot of Merkel's blood in protests by the thousands (the largest being in Dresden under the PEGIDA), and now they have joined an even broader movement against lockdowns and compulsory vaccinations.
What else is Merkel commonly criticized for?
In the fight against the pandemic, she tightened the screws and provoked mass demonstrations of dissenters. Their demonstrations were violently dispersed by the police - and these were not some left-right radicals, but ordinary middle-aged, well-dressed citizens. Pictures of the police beating these people in the center of Berlin caused a great shock: even the tabloid Bild, which has always moved along with the official line, began to criticize the chancellor.
The double standard is a source of public tension: when the government preaches liberal democracy and criticizes autocratic regimes, but "does not see the log in its own eye" - the way in which dissenters are openly pressed within the country.
Another marker, perhaps the most disturbing, for it shows the degradation of public administration in the protection of citizens, is the way the Federal Emergency Ministry reacted to the recent flooding in the Rhineland region. The public was stunned that the emergency notification system did not work, even though the forecast of the disaster had been received several days in advance. Only those with a mobile app were warned, no SMS texting was done, and the emergency sirens in many towns simply rotted away. While people were dying in the muddy streams, entertainment shows were shown on local channels.
The death toll exceeded 180 people, which is fitting for a third world country, not the economic leader of the EU. The waters of the Rhine had risen higher before, but never this nightmare. For many, this was the final straw for Merkel.
And the way Armin Lachet, the Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) candidate for chancellor and head of the affected region of North Rhine-Westphalia, ineptly justified himself has badly affected his rating - analysts no longer see him as Merkel's successor and give the CDU 15-20 percent, not more, in the elections.
On the eve of the election
Indeed, Olaf Scholz and his Social Democratic Party (SPD) have begun to overtake the conservatives in the election race. Did the flood problem really play a major role in this?
Here it is worth starting with the fact that the German political system is essentially a two-party system - a "pull-pull" between the CDU and the SPD, the "blacks" and the "reds. They have been alternating in governing the country for many years, ever since the creation of the FRG. And the other parties create the background for this supporting construction.
In the last parliamentary elections, in 2017, the Social Democrats were defeated - they were the loudest advocate of attracting refugees, welcoming them to Germany. The migration crisis hit them hard. They only got 20 percent - a historically low score. And then the Alternative for Germany (AdG) won the Bundestag for the first time with 12.6 percent. This is the painful reaction of Germans to the situation with migrants.
Now all the polls are talking about a resurgence of the Social Democrats - their ratings are seriously ahead of the CDU. The society is ready to give the SPD a new chance - against the background of fatigue from Merkel, the "screw-ups" of the government and the deteriorating domestic situation in Germany. The latter is felt everywhere: the trains are regularly late, the streets are dirty, state administration is in crisis, and the middle class is slowly but surely getting poorer. This is especially noticeable for older people, who remember what Germany used to be like under Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
In the last election, the SPD was criticized for becoming almost indistinguishable from the CDU - "all good vs. all bad. This "loss of face" also hurt the SPD at that time. But the conclusions were made - having weathered the wave of negativity, the party changed its strategy, renewed its rhetoric, but most importantly - it successfully bet on Scholz as leader and candidate for chancellor, who proved himself well as minister of finance.
You are right that the Rhineland disaster certainly helped Scholz, but for Lachette it was a real "black swan. Polls clearly record the collapse of the CDU's rating after the release of shots of a smirking Lachet during the flood victims' ceremony.
What exactly is the SPD appealing to Germans right now?
In their agitation, the Social Democrats appeal to the needs of the people, emphasizing social guarantees, economic development and the fight against climate change. In this way, they win back some of the lost votes from the Greens and the Left - the rhetoric of these party leaders has become too radical for voters.
You have to understand that even protesting Germans en masse pray for the word "order," but fear "chaos."
As soon as the Social Democrats rebuilt themselves and began to work on their image, many socialists regained confidence in them. It is, after all, a party with more than 150 years of history.
The period of protest voting seems to be coming to an end for Germans - it peaked in 2017. The political system has shown its resilience, has overcome the risks of the populist wave that swept European countries in the mid-2010s, and is returning to its usual course. The SPD is the clear favorite in these elections, and the time has come for the CDU/CSU to cede the seat of federal chancellor to the Social Democrats.
And what are the chances of the other parties?
Also among the favorites is the Union-90/The Greens, which has attracted a significant number of young voters, mostly in large cities in the west. Today, the climate agenda is being rocked by all the world's media, which has lent itself well to the green campaign. Although the Greens have lost a lot in recent months because of the scandals of compromising their leader Annalena Berbok (her book was plagiarized and her resume was false information - a comment by Lenta.ru), they kept their 15 percent and occupy third place in the ranking of parties.
The two flank parties, AdG and the Left, have been pushed to the periphery, in part because of the actions of the mainstream media, which strongly demonize both of them. Both parties are in the electoral ghetto, but if AdG stays in roughly the same position as four years ago (10-12 percent), the Left Party could lose up to three percent - almost a third of its seats.
The liberals of the Free Democratic Party are also closed to their core electorate - the urban creative class and small entrepreneurs - which is a narrow segment. But if they get past AdG, they would be the heroes of the day.
What will happen to the CDU/CSU, which lost the lead by losing votes to other parties?
According to the polls, they could lose almost a third of the voters, 21 percent compared to 33 percent in the 2017 elections. But they have already shown a marked decline in the last election, too. The same logic of bipartisan "swings" applies here.
After the elections, the CDU will regroup, change its team, and overhaul its policies: they have been rightly accused of alienating the people by miles of bureaucratic corridors. In contrast to the Social Democrats, who actively "went out to the people" just last year.
In four years, however, the CDU could theoretically be taking revenge. For example, if Scholz, having become chancellor, makes a serious mistake. This is quite possible under the conditions of the pandemic and the global financial crisis, the intensification of which is predicted by experts.