It is election season in Germany, and Angela Merkel, the chancellor, is living through her worst nightmare. The allegedly most powerful female politician on the planet hates campaign politics.
Ms. Merkel should be confident and upbeat. She has managed the euro crisis quite well; the currency hasn’t collapsed, and Germans are doing fine economically. She leads in the polls by a strong margin and enjoys remarkable approval ratings, despite being in office for eight years. There is almost no chance of her losing her post when voters go to the polls on Sunday.
Still, something smells foul, and Ms. Merkel is gripped by that wariness that usually befalls her when things are going too well. And this time she may be on to something: is the woman who has succeeded through an iron commitment to consensus and harmony too boring for Germany?
Ms. Merkel has never been good on the stump. She was elected chancellor twice, but for her, elections evoke a sense of trauma. She almost lost to Gerhard Schröder in 2005 despite a comfortable lead in the polls. Four years later, despite strong poll numbers, she again did worse than expected on Election Day, though her position was secured by her strong coalition partner, the Free Democrats.
When it comes to elections, Ms. Merkel really is a bad politician. She has never managed to relax and show confidence on the campaign trail. In her only TV debate with her main challenger, Peer Steinbrück of the left-leaning Social Democrats, she seemed distant and passive. On the stump she only recently went into attack mode — and shied back again immediately.
On Syria, she tried to offer support for America’s efforts against the use of chemical weapons while also heeding the German public’s aversion to military action, only to find herself vulnerable to criticism that she would either follow President Obama blindly or leave him in the lurch, as she did in the Libya crisis.
She is not a fascinating speaker, though in private she is highly engaging and even funny. She rarely makes a bold move, and even on minor issues she is cautious and thinks through the possible consequences over and over again.
The paradox is that such weaknesses on the trail are strengths in office. The chancellor’s signature mark is her deliberate, argument-driven, boring, clinical policy style. She takes a problem, cuts it into pieces and tries to find a solution, often heavily technical and always very detailed.
During the height of the euro crisis, this calm and deliberate style helped her, and though she has her critics, she is arguably responsible for saving the euro zone.
So why is she such a coward in the campaign? Why is she not cashing in and investing some of the political capital she has amassed? Because Ms. Merkel can’t beat her worst enemy: herself.
Ms. Merkel is the master of harmony, the den mother of one of the world’s richest economies. But that style almost by definition prevents her from taking the offensive during a campaign.
And, after eight years in office, Ms. Merkel’s calm, deliberative style may have run its course with German voters. She has basically suffocated most of her political opponents by absorbing their positions, leaving no oxygen for them to breathe. Critics accuse her of sucking all blood from the political life in Germany — a country that loves consensus and is suspicious of too much fighting.
People want to know what they have to expect over the next four years. They want to have a choice. They deserve more than a hint on how the most powerful country in Europe finally wants to overcome the crisis on the Continent.
Ms. Merkel knows this, but she won’t change. She dislikes being compared to Margaret Thatcher, but she subscribes to Mrs. Thatcher’s famous dictum: “The lady’s not for turning.” This may come as a shock abroad, where Germany’s neighbors are waiting for Election Day as if it were Christmas. They want and expect to see Germany live up to its potential as a world leader, whether it is on economic or security matters.
But there are no gifts awaiting, no new, more robust German foreign policy to emerge after the distractions of the election. No miracles will be performed on Sunday.
Regardless of whether she dominates the election or just squeaks by, Ms. Merkel will govern in the same boring, deliberate style as before. Step by step, crisis after crisis.
To seal her legacy as a great chancellor, Ms. Merkel must now reinvent herself and show more leadership, both at home and abroad. She needs to take a risk or two, and even be prepared to lose.
She could afford it — but will she?
Stefan Kornelius is the foreign editor of the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and the author of Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and Her World.