By John Lloyd
If every nation gets the leader it deserves, what would Angela Merkel's smashing victory on Sunday say about Germany?
It would show that Germans are cautious, prefer consensus to confrontation in their politics, and dislike pizzazz in their politicians. They both want a united Europe and despise southern European states that can't manage their finances. At least, that's how they are for the moment. (European politics, even in Germany, are febrile these days.)
Angela Merkel has achieved a rare fusion with a nation into which she was not born. Merkel is the daughter of an East German, socialistic Lutheran pastor, passionately fond of opera, fluent in Russian and moderately good in English, with a doctorate in quantum chemistry. But, as an approving German woman told the BBC, she is now seen as "one of us."
She's done it partly through building consensus, which has been her most avidly-sought political choice. She has appropriated center-left positions, like abolishing the German military draft, raising the minimum wage and proposing higher pensions for older mothers. There was also the sudden conversion to the anti-nuclear cause in 2011 and the banning of nuclear power stations.
Her recent campaign, everywhere described as bland, appeared to attract rather than repel. When the Social Democratic challenger, Peer Steinbruck, employed his "rough, didactic and not very diplomatic" style against her in debates, he was seen as macho-rude rather than plain-speaking. German fans gave Merkel the nickname of mutti (mom), and who can stand by while someone's rude to another's mom?
For all that, a close look at the results shows a country almost exactly split between right and left, aside from its affection for Merkel. The combined votes of Merkel's Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), the liberal Free Democrats and the anti-euro Alternative for Germany party (both of which narrowly fell below the 5 percent minimum that would give them parliamentary representation) runs at around 51 percent. The Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Left party managed 49 percent. Given that Merkel's anti-charismatic charisma was such a dominant factor, one could argue that the combined left didn't do badly. With another leader of the center right, they might have won.
That fact, and the "grand coalition" between center-right and center-left forecast by most observers, will mean that consensus will be even more emphasized — as will the continued need for austerity. Steinbruck, finance minister to Merkel's chancellor in the last left-right coalition (2005-9), has said he won't serve in another such government (though the two got along well enough). His reluctance points to a long period of negotiation, probably leading to a submission by the SPD to the necessity of coalition in the national interest, and under public pressure.
The result, and the nature of it, most vividly demonstrates that Germany is the only major European state that is both committed to a united Europe and has a stable polity. Britain, out of the euro, has seen its economy strengthen — but still struggles with a huge debt burden of some 90 percent of GDP, requiring, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has it, "further fiscal consolidation…to restore the sustainability of public finances." To put it another way: more unavoidable cuts.
When these happen, all kinds of political cats will come out of the bag. France's debt is presently higher than the UK's, and the popularity of its president low. Italy's government, itself a left-right coalition, is fragile in the extreme, hostage to Silvio Berlusconi's threats of a "civil war" if he is removed from the Senate following his conviction for tax fraud, and to the ambitions of Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence. Spain remains mired in recession; Poland, whose economy is relatively healthy, still has a weakened prime minister in Donald Tusk and a parliament that will not vote to enter the euro zone.
This means that Germany is not only still destined to lead Europe, it must do so without a strong partner. That partner has been, for decades, France. The partnership now looks more formal than substantial. UK Premier David Cameron and Merkel appear to enjoy good relations — but Cameron is going to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership if re-elected, while Merkel has reaffirmed, again and again, her commitment to a united Europe, and the euro.
In a BBC TV portrait of her on the eve of the election, the reporter Andrew Marr revealed that on the night — November 9, 1989 — that the Berlin Wall was breached by the citizens of both East and West Berlin, Angela Merkel didn't take part. She was in East Berlin, a postgraduate scholar at East Germany's Academy of Sciences. That evening, she took a sauna as usual, then went for a beer. Phlegmatic hardly describes her.
But later, after democratic politics came to the East, she joined the Christian Democrats, won a parliamentary seat, rose through the cabinet to be Party chairman, helped force her mentor, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to resign after a financing scandal, and she suddenly emerged as a leader. It was a rise only possible because of the creative turmoil of early 1990s Germany, a rise only sustained by a character wholly unusual in politics for its apparent and determined ordinariness.
Hers is the number an American, Chinese, or Russian leader must call when one wants to talk to "Europe." Her big victory, more than either of the previous two in 2005 and 2009, places on her sloping shoulders the burden of a still faltering continent, with still vast debt levels, and still unsustainable welfare budgets. Most importantly, there's a European population still largely in denial of what they must do to maintain living standards.
Germany did get the chancellor it deserved. Will Europe deserve her?
(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.)
(Any opinions expressed here are the author's own)