Editor’s Note: Rina Soloveitchik is a Berlin-based freelance journalist and writer. She has covered politics and society in Europe and beyond for a range of German and English-speaking publications. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
All over Berlin, Angela Merkel greets passers-by with a tender smile.
Written next to her soothing, familiar face are the words: “For a Germany in which we live well and happily.” She is inviting Germans to surrender and be led into a bright future.
At the moment, that future remains somewhat undefined. But specifics are hardly required when there is a tried and tested face with warm and friendly eyes ready to lead you there.
And therein lies the logic that has been at the heart of Merkel’s entire campaign ahead of Germany’s federal elections this weekend. As things stand, Germany’s electorate is set to deliver Merkel a fourth term as Chancellor of Europe’s most powerful economy.
Germany, so the narrative goes, has never been as well-off as now – and Merkel is supposedly the only person who can perpetuate that state of bliss.
Why? Because of her perceived ability to react with a cool head, whatever comes her way.
Merkel, some people seem to believe, is able to turn any challenge the nation faces into yet another chapter in the never-ending German success story.
The mythology around Merkel as the measured scientist – the tested mother of a nation – has become the message, and as far as Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, is concerned, this is enough to ensure it resounding victory Sunday.
A glance at Merkel’s election manifesto does not reveal many specifics as to how exactly she plans to make Germany even stronger, of course. Indeed, it’s more likely the flowery promises that are supposed to please everyone and burden no one will bore you stiff.
Lower taxes for employees; full employment by 2025; more money for families; state support for companies; more police; more defense spending; more NATO; and more European Union. More for everyone and less for no one sounds great – but on the matter of how, voters are still in the dark.
But right now it appears that they are willing to give in to temptation and vote for her anyway. Depending on which poll you look at, 36% to 40% of Germans plan to back this image of a person with few clear policies.
You could be forgiven for thinking that in this election representation is trumping the democracy in Germany’s representative democracy. But in fact, Merkel’s appeal was always that of a woman who transcends the dogma of the program and coherent ideology. She is a woman by whom one could simply be led. If this amounts to a democratic crisis in Germany, then it’s a crisis that started long ago: Now it’s simply the status quo.
What has changed, however, is the world that Merkel now faces. Never mind that the lowest-paid 40% now earn less in real terms than they did 20 years ago, that the German car industry is suffering reputational losses, or that Europe is starting to become economically less relevant in the face of the rise of China and India.
Germany and much of the West is also suffering at the hands of a new political reality: apathy on the one hand and an aggressive pushback against the globalized, cosmopolitan world on the other.
A large number of voters in Germany is still undecided, according to some estimates. The far-right populists from the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party are performing well in the polls and might become the third-largest force in the German parliament.
Then there are the problems that Germany faces externally. The Trump presidency and Brexit require not only agile negotiation skills but a long-term vision that could inspire people to believe in an open, inclusive and cosmopolitan world.
Should Merkel win Sunday, as expected, she will have to lead Germany through a uniquely difficult term in which it will have to become the new face of the so-called liberal world.
For that, it is not enough for Merkel simply to be a friendly face. There must be a vision and an agenda for which the German Chancellor stands.