Geopolitics

The Secret Of Angela Merkel's Success

German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses in front of her picture on an campaign bus in Berlin, Germany, on Sept. 16, 2013
German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses in front of her picture on an campaign bus in Berlin, Germany, on Sept. 16, 2013
Nathalie Versieux

MUNICH – A single electoral poster sums up Angela Merkel’s campaign: a collage of 2,100 photos, all taken by anonymous “Angie” fans, displayed on a 2,400 square meter billboard outside Berlin’s central station.

Germany’s Future Is In Good Hands, it says. Of Angela Merkel, we only see the two hands, shaped in a triangle, a posture that has become legend, one that she takes every time she faces a camera.

It’s also between her hands that the whole Christian Democratic Union (CDU) campaign lies, with a program that seems to come down to one word: Merkel. In a similar way, when she faced her Social-Democrat opponent Peer Steinbrück in the Sept 1 television debate, she addressed the viewers with an almost arrogant modesty at the end of the debate: “You know me!”

It has grown into an unprecedented (and unlikely) personality cult in Germany that has triggered a vast movement of sarcastic comments on the Internet. This polarization around the person of Angela Merkel is even more surprising when the general public actually knows rather little about this eastern woman with such an atypical personal and political history.

“Don’t ask me any anecdotes on Angela Merkel!” warns the director of the Munich School of Political Science Werner Weidenfeld, who knows her personally.

Merkel jealously guards her private life, and all those who breached the tacit demand for absolute discretion have been excluded from her circle of close relations. Only she seems to have recently allow herself to reveal, bit by bit, a few details of her private life: her favorite film (The Legend of Paul and Paula, a romantic movie that is very popular in the former East Germany where she was born and raised), her basic culinary tastes (beef roulades and potato soup), her sleep (which she “stocks up on like a camel does with water”) and that in a man, she is “attracted to beautiful eyes.”

But when she appears to be opening up, she does it in a controlled way. In eight years at the head of the country, she has only been seen giving in to emotions once: when the German football team and her favorite striker Bastian Schweinsteiger scored. And she only took one hasty decision: when she chose to extend the working life of nuclear power plants. A decision which she abruptly reversed after the Fukushima tragedy, in March 2011.

Where's the vision?

Popular and unrivalled, Angela Merkel is at the peak of her power. Never has a Chancellor had as much power as she has after eight years in power. Her popularity ratings are stable – between 52 and 60% of positive opinions depending on the week – and goes far beyond the boundaries of the CDU, of which she took the head by surprise, in April 2000, taking advantage of the party’ s slush fund scandal.

In Germany, political specialists and biographers all seem to be hitting a brick wall on the Merkel “mystery”. How do you explain that a Chancellor who is not all that charismatic, quite plain, hardly a great speaker, slow in making decisions, over-cautious in her choices and lacking political vision, enjoy such a popularity?

“She says ‘yes’ to everything, even if, at the end of the day, she does nothing. She sends the public to sleep,” sighs the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel, who is betting on a system of alternating political power in 2017.

What about same-sex marriage, minimum wage or even the establishment of a female quota in companies? Angela Merkel claimed to be “in favor in a personal capacity” of every one of these fairly popular measures. She even regrets “not being able to put them into practice” right now.

Described as a “Teflon Chancellor” by her opponents, nothing seems to affect her. Paradoxically, Germans seem to be captivated by this normal appearance that yet somehow grows more presidential every day.

Over the years, foreign policy and Europe have become her favorite topics. Her second term, dominated by the Euro crisis, allowed her to place herself as an unconditional defender of German interests.

Neither media nor the opposition – which approved every single Euro rescue plan – have been able to challenge her role in the fallout from the economic woes. In the last few years, the Chancellor has imperceptibly left more and more domestic policy issues for her ministers to deal with, and only takes part in current affairs when a debate threatens her own standing.

Her opponents charge that she’s only interested in one thing now: "staying in power.” Right now, all polls indicate that Merkel has every chance to indeed attain a third term. Meanwhile, she strongly denies rumors that she might resign before the end of the term of office to put a chosen successor in place.

The choice would be limited anyhow: Angie has made of all her potential rivals inside the CDU disappear.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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