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.