Guardian, 15 August 2012

Why Germans love the enigmatic Angela Merkel

The German chancellor’s private personality and cautious economics have led to astonishingly high approval ratings

She is “Europe’s most dangerous leader“, the “Iron Frau” who is “dragging us towards the abyss“. Angela Merkel’s handling of the euro crisis, it is safe to say, has not been met with approval on the world stage. Even at home, the German chancellor recently had to dodge criticism by a group of prominent economists; one of her own party members has gone public to complain about her authoritarian style of running the Christian Democrats. Such is the international anger about her apparent failure to save the euro that the Economist, in its current issue, asked for some sympathy for “Germany’s long-suffering chancellor” – while still criticising Merkel for her indecisiveness.

And yet, in spite of the financial crisis going from bad to worse, the German people are still firmly behind her. According to a recent opinion poll by public broadcaster ARD, 70% of all Germans feel Merkel is the best person to save the euro. A similar survey by news magazine Stern confirmed her popularity; if they could vote for their head of government directly, 49% of all Germans would choose Merkel.

The fact that the German economy has until now fared rather well through the global downturn alone does not fully explain her widespread popularity. Her own Christian Democratic party, for example, has not benefitted from the country’s economic stability in the same way. According to the ARD survey, only 36% of Germans would give Merkel’s party their vote if they could go to the polls now. In contrast, Merkel is perceived almost as a non-partisan head of state rather than a career politician. To put this into perspective, imagine Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” Merkel is often compared to, enjoying the Queen’s levels of popularity.

This enthusiasm, to put it mildly, is puzzling. Even Merkel’s most ardent supporters would find it hard to argue that she is a very inspirational or charismatic leader. How can such a reserved, rational and uninspiring politician arouse such widespread approval?

It’s not just national stereotypes that tell us that Germans have an aversion to flashy leaders. Since they followed Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler into two disastrous world wars, Germans have developed a tendency to vote for more tempered and earnest leaders. In 1957, the Christian Democrats headed their election campaign with the fabulously uninspiring slogan “No Experiments!” – and won over 50% of the vote, still the highest result in German postwar history.

Helmut Kohl, the first chancellor of a unified Germany, was the embodiment of dependability and stability, and Merkel, the country’s first east German leader, fits this mould perfectly. To be sure, Germany also had its share of showy politicians, like the cigar-chomping Gerhard Schröder or the Green party’s patriarch, Joschka Fischer. But both toned down their personal style once they were in government, Schröder losing his Cohibas and Fischer changing his eco-activist get-up for dapper suits. Only last year, defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, whose louche looks and brash rhetorical style had thrown Merkel’s rather distant cautiousness into sharp relief, had to step down after he was convicted of plagiarism and lost his PhD title.

Such flamboyance is still unthinkable with the current chancellor. There is nothing remotely eccentric or extravagant about Merkel; her biggest personal scandal of the last few months was the fact that she wore the same dress to the opening of this year’s Bayreuth festival she had worn a few years before.

This down-to-earth approach is also reflected in Merkel’s cautious political style, which has often led the international press to accuse her of lacking a clear vision for Europe’s future. However, this aversion to big ideas is a long-standing part of German postwar political culture. Helmut Schmidt, Kohl’s Social Democratic predecessor, once famously quipped that people with visions should go and see a doctor. In a country that has experienced the two major political ideologies of the 20th century – fascism and communism – not just in theory but in its most harsh and real form, lofty idealism in politics is often viewed with suspicion.

The most important reason for Merkel’s popularity at home, however, is neither the euro crisis nor German history, but herself. Somehow, this female, middle-aged, childless physicist from a Protestant background has convinced conservative fathers from Catholic Bavaria, working-class women from west Germany’s old industrial areas and Berlin’s intellectual bohemians alike that she is the best representative of their interests. Merkel has managed to remain an enigma to most Germans, a blank sheet on to which they can project their personal idea of their leader. Only last week she gave a rare personal interview to the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s weekend supplement: readers learnt that the biggest folly of the chancellor’s youth was ruining a brand-new tracksuit by “crawling into a resinous tree cave” and that her dream dinner guest is Spain’s national coach Vincente del Bosque. But her sparse, dispassionate answers still gave nothing away about her inner workings and the paper concluded that “nobody really knows Angela Merkel”.

As her approval rating shows, this taciturnity is working in her favour. In our media-centred political culture, full of spin doctors, photo ops and publicity stunts, the most effective public relations strategy seems to be to keep things private.