As the Merkel Era Draws To a Close, Indian Politicians Can Take Some Lessons
Angela Merkel, Germany’s charismatic woman Chancellor, will be remembered for her pragmatic and unifying politics.
One of the western world’s longest-serving leaders, Angela Merkel, steps down this month. What will Germany’s charismatic woman Chancellor be remembered for?
German politics in the 21st century can be divided into two phases — the pre-and post-Merkel era. Elected as Chancellor in 2005, Merkel, 67, is the first woman and the first East German to hold her nation’s highest office. She will be Germany’s second longest-serving leader of the modern era, after her former mentor, Helmut Kohl.
Angela Merkel has had books, documentaries, and scores of articles written on her — as a woman leader, a scientist, or simply as a ‘Hausfrau’ (housewife). But none have decrypted the enigma of one of Germany’s most influential Chancellors. Her contemporaries from 2005 — Britain’s Tony Blair and US President George W Bush — have long since retired from active politics. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is the only other major world leader who is still around.
How Merkel Steered Germany and Europe
Merkel’s strengths are immense. Her leadership skills to handle delicate situations with empathy and courage will be missed. Not only did she open Germany’s borders to accommodate immigrants of various hues, but she also played a decisive role in helping the European Union (EU) come out of a recession in the 2000s. Her understanding of global relations, geostrategic and geopolitical churn is admirable. Yet, she comes across as a pragmatic, moderate and unifying figure, who has walked through the toughest of global crises without pulling her neck out.
Germans are known to be a fussy lot. So, while the world looked up to Germany as a leader in tackling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Germans themselves were sceptical about their own leadership. However, once they saw how bad the situation could get in other countries, such as India, they quickly realised that they were not badly placed, after all. This mentality is also representative of how Germans themselves have observed their leader. Over the last 16 years, Merkel’s approval ratings were heavily critiqued at the beginning of her term by her ‘Volk’ (people). However, today, she is enthusiastically backed by her ‘Volk’, so much so that had she wanted to go for a fifth term, it would have been a cakewalk. This is clearly visible in her approval ratings as late as last year, which was a whopping 57%.
Not just at the home front, European citizens, too, are not willing to give up on Merkel. According to a survey conducted by European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank published recently, given a hypothetical choice between Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron becoming “EU president”, a clear majority opted for the German chancellor. As much as 58 per cent of Dutch respondents, 57 per cent of Spanish and 52 per cent of Portuguese gave Merkel support in this fantasy race, compared to 6 per cent, 9 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively, in favour of Macron.
ACE OF A’s – Analytical, Authentic, Austere
Merkel drew admiration as a global leader who stood up to the Trump administration’s “America first” policies, advocating inclusivity and pluralism. She was quick to accept the issue of polarisation in Germany when the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party got its first representation in Parliament; she steered the strongest EU economic powerhouse, becoming a torchbearer of a responsible world leadership working towards a balanced world order. The shy daughter of a theologian has been touted as one of the most authentic leaders, with the courage to face the harshest critics even within her own Christian Democratic Union party (CDU).
Merkel brought scientific temper into politics not just in spirit, but also made it an integral part of her decision-making. Her style of governance is based on a foundation of fact-based research and meticulous planning with patience and preparation. So much so that her counterparts would often get impatient. Yet, it is this analytical, inference-based decision-making that has made her stand apart from the rest of her peer group.
Some Germans have called her dull, uninspiring and have wondered why no other party has pitted a charismatic personality against her. Yet, a sizable majority has placed trust in her, as she gave them a sense of security. An entire generation of voters hasn’t ever experienced any other leader apart from her. In times when ample emphasis is placed on appearances and propaganda, Germany's “Mutti” (mother) has leveraged the society-politics-media cacophony to her advantage and managed to convert it into a melodic symphony. This is because she comes across as authentic and austere. The substance of her personality, politics, and appearances have consistently been in sync. Even her sense of dressing up and fashion has remained constant. Nothing else can explain how a ‘non-charismatic’ personality evened out every single opposition and constant voter fatigue election after election. Once dismissed as previous Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s “little girl”, ‘Mutti’ became one of the world’s most influential leaders.
‘Merkelism’ — Who Takes the Legacy Forward?
The past two decades in global and domestic politics have been tumultuous for most leaders. Germany is still at a crossroads and there is no clear successor of Merkel in sight. There is hardly a head of state even in the history of contemporary politics that has seen so many ups-and-downs that Merkel has seen. Be it the economic meltdown in 2008 with bail-outs of Greece and Spain, Brexit, shutting down of nuclear reactors, refugee crisis, or the COVID-19 pandemic: Merkel has always walked the tightrope amidst turbulences and struggled to retain her balance.
At home, and even within the EU, she leaves behind voids and ambiguities for the future. The most concerning is the future of this economic cooperation — there is hardly a leader in the 27-country regional cooperation that can fill the gap.
The same can be said on the home front, where neither party is able to give a clear political direction for the next term. The discredit also goes to Merkel, where she blurred the lines between her own party’s centre-rightist ideology of the Christian Democrats and the centre-leftist Social Democratic one. So much so that Merkel’s own successor as CDU chairman, Armin Laschet, has been unable to capture the imagination of the German voter clearly because the party itself is struggling to find its own identity.
The migration issue stands out as one of Merkel’s biggest cliffhangers. While the international community looked at her in awe when she even defied her own party, it is still to be determined as a success or failure. This was one of the major reasons that the disgruntled conservative voter went on to back the far-rightist AFD, which eventually managed to get a representation in the German Parliament due to her migration and eurozone policies.
A Delayed Feminist?
What is perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects of Merkel’s leadership is the lack of the same on the topic of feminism. Despite being one of the most influential woman leaders and the first woman Chancellor of Germany, it is tough to grasp why after all these years, it was only last week that she agreed to being a feminist, crediting Queen Máxima of the Netherlands for explaining to her the relevance of the term. Merkel’s supporters believed her when she said she believes in “deeds” and leading by example, but for a country that still sees just 31% women representation in Parliament, she could have done a lot more. She has been an inspiration for countless women who might still struggle to find their space in the ‘Boy’s Club’.
Indo-German Relations Post-Merkel
Much has been said about the camaraderie between Prime Minister Modi and Merkel. India will be keenly observing how the leadership shapes up with its sixth-largest trading partner. Under the aegis of Merkel, Germany’s support has increased and now it is one of the top countries, along with Japan to assist India in technical and cooperation programmes.
India has had the backing of Germany for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, but when it comes to equations in the Asian region, there is much left for Germany to back India on.
Merkel has been unable to control China’s rise in the region as well as its aggressive economic policies. Germany’s latest Indo-Pacific policy document leaves much to the imagination, though it is a step in the right direction. The EU-India FTA talks have been in limbo for more than a decade. India and Germany are celebrating their 70 years of diplomatic relations, yet deeper engagement remains untapped. Germans have pulled out of India’s P75-I submarine programme, and this leaves hardly any German defence company present in India. This still le
For the time being, as Germany prepares to choose its next leader on 26 September, Angela Merkel has already declared that she plans to take a well-deserved break. The world’s most popular woman leader could well be spotted shopping for groceries in the next-door supermarket in Berlin.
(Sunanda Rao Erdem is the Founder & CEO, Seraphim Communications LLP. She is also a professional opera singer, and Board Member, The Neemrana Music Foundation. She tweets at @sunandaraoerdem. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.