Angela Merkel has finally confirmed that she will run for reappointment as German chancellor in the country’s 2017 parliamentary elections. Many have hoped for this moment, despite the setbacks of the past few years. There is a strong sense that the world needs Merkel now more than ever. She has made some unpopular decisions in her 11 years as chancellor but she is, to many, the antithesis of Donald Trump.
Chancellorship has been no walk in the park for Merkel of late. In 2015, she upset many supporters of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), by opening German borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees. To curb the influx, Merkel had to commit to a dirty deal with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, offering generous EU visa terms for his citizens in exchange for stopping millions of refugees from entering Europe.
The pressure intensified in 2016, when a spate of sexual assaults, apparently committed by migrants, stirred up a significant backlash against the new arrivals.
Merkel’s CDU went on to suffer bitter setbacks in federal elections. And an Islamic State-inspired axe attack by a young man from Afghanistan in Bavaria in July 2016 was seen as evidence that Merkel’s open door refugee policy had failed.
In September 2016, Merkel’s popularity reached a five-year low. No more than 45% of German people were satisfied with her performance. During a public speech on German Unity Day in Dresden, angry protesters drew on Nazi language and called Merkel a “traitor of the people” and demanded her resignation.
On the international stage, the Brexit vote was a huge blow to Merkel and her pro-European course. She now needs to negotiate an exit for Britain without also triggering the demise of the entire EU project.
And as if all of this wasn’t enough, Merkel will have to deal with Donald Trump as president of the United States. After Trump’s election victory, Merkel gave a remarkable speech, offering him close collaboration on the basis that the new American president would respect freedom, democracy and the dignity and worth of all people.
While most other world leaders gave bland statements of half-hearted hope that the president-elect would not see through on his more controversial promises, the German leader was sending a strong signal – and even a challenge.
After the open sexism and racism that characterised Trump’s campaign, it looks like close collaboration is an extremely unlikely scenario. Merkel was effectively saying that standing up to such prejudice was more important to her than relations with the US – although whether she remains true to her principles should she be re-elected is another question.
A sense of responsibility
Given the overwhelming number of problems facing whoever wins in 2017, the easiest decision would have been to let someone else do the job of chancellor. But Merkel isn’t one for easy solutions.
There was little enthusiasm or excitement in her voice as she announced her candidacy, and she openly admitted that standing had been a difficult decision. Although Merkel didn’t mention any names, it was obvious that she wanted to send a message to Trump and right-wing populists in Europe. She emphasised that political decisions need to be based on the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, respect for the law, and the dignity of every human being.
Following her announcement, Merkel appeared on a talk show and left no doubt that she expected difficult times and an “exhausting and challenging” election campaign. Yet, she added that she felt confident that she could defend these values that hold our society together.
Merkel openly challenges Trump because there is a lot more at stake than Anglo-German relations. Fears grow that in 2017 the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen could become the next French president, and that Europe’s far right will grow further. Against this background, Merkel sees an urgent need to oppose the populism, racism and gender ideology of the extreme right, and this feeling is shared by many Germans.
Can she win?
Merkel’s statement was a manifestation of everything that people love and hate about her. She carefully assesses situations before taking decisions, she is stubbornly committed to Christian values and the European project, she seeks consensus rather than victory, and she displays a striking lack of charisma.
The New York Times has called Merkel “the liberal west’s last defender” and while she is too smart to get excited about such headlines, she knows that her approach and personality traits have become a rare commodity in the post-truth era of global politics.
Merkel has described herself as a “chancellor for turbulent times” and there is good reason to believe that she could act as an important counterbalance to the charismatic, impulsive, erratic, and polemical President Trump.
Recent polls suggest Merkel’s popularity scores are slowly recovering. Although it is to be expected that some CDU voters will switch to vote for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AFD), she has a good chance of re-election. She may not win an outright majority, but her party would be able to form a coalition with various other parties, which would leave the CDU in a strong position to push through their candidate for the chancellorship.