Angela Merkel doesn’t give big speeches. The German Chancellor addresses her nation once a year, in a pre-recorded New Year’s message. When she decided to update German citizens about the coronavirus outbreak in March, it was the first unscheduled televised address she had given in almost 15 years of leadership.
The speech was a hit.
Merkel, a pastor’s daughter with a doctorate in quantum chemistry, presented the grim facts of the pandemic while also offering a dose of compassion. She referenced her East German background and the difficulty she had with the idea of restricting freedom of movement. But she explained why doing so was necessary, and got Germans on her side.
“She is not a great orator, but this calm message to the nation contributed to the confidence of the people: 80% to 90% felt she can do it,” said Wolfgang Merkel (no relation to the Chancellor), professor of political science at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “When people are deeply insecure about the future, they seek protection and more certainty from the government.”
It has been a real transformation for Merkel, who began the year as a lame duck leader. Her political record had been damaged by the huge backlash against her “open door” refugee policy, her succession plan collapsed and her party was rapidly losing ground to the fringes.
Merkel had already announced that she would not seek re-election in the next federal election in the fall of 2021. She stepped down as the leader of her party, the CDU, in 2018. Even her physical health has been questioned.
But when Covid-19 began to spread across the globe, Merkel stepped up once again.
“She started a massive revival, not just in Germany, but also in the world, because for the first time in 150 years, the world is facing a global crisis and people are not looking towards the US for global leadership, they are looking to Merkel,” said Andrea Römmele, a professor at the Hertie School in Berlin.
Merkel’s personal approval ratings are through the roof and she is overshadowing the rest of her coalition government. Her legacy looks to have been saved.
“She will be remembered as a true crisis manager,” Römmele said, pointing to the previous three global or pan-European troubles Merkel had led her country through: the global financial crisis, the Eurozone debt crisis and the migration crisis in 2015. “She is incredible, whenever there is a crisis, she does her best,” she added.
On Wednesday, Merkel unveiled plans for the partial lifting of Germany’s weeks-long lockdown, announcing: “We can afford a bit of courage.” But still, she tempered the relief with caution, insisting: “We have to watch that this thing does not slip out of our hands.”
“The first phase of the pandemic is behind us but we are still at the beginning and it will be with us for a long time,” she said.
Germany as the success story
Germany has received near-universal praise for the way it has handled the coronavirus epidemic. and it’s not just Merkel’s calm approach and sky-high approval ratings that place her in sharp contrast to many other world leaders.
The numbers speak for themselves: Germany’s Covid-19 death toll has stayed relatively low compared to other countries and its well-resourced health system allowed its hospitals to accept patients from other, more embattled, European countries. Where most nations struggled, Germany became the poster child for coronavirus testing.
This international comparison is one reason for the boost to Merkel’s popularity.
“I am not a big sympathizer of this government, nevertheless, they were rather successful in containing the crisis … especially if you look at the UK or the US who are seen as the unsuccessful examples,” said Wolfgang Merkel.
The Chancellor appeared to grasp the gravity of the situation at an early stage, Merkel said, which made her more credible when the crisis escalated in Europe. “In the UK and the US, in the public eye, the leaders did not accept this was a major challenge, you had these kind of macho politicians saying ‘This is fine,’ and, ‘We will get through this,’” he added.
Gero Neugebauer, renowned German political scientist, said Merkel’s scientific background had shaped her response to the crisis – and added to her credibility. “She is more cautious … basing her response on her knowledge of how science works,” he said. “And she isn’t interested in getting a good image for herself for the next election, but in doing a good job.”
Having already announced her plan to step down, Merkel isn’t facing the same political pressures as the likes of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron or US President Donald Trump, who are all likely to face a fight for reelection in the future.
She is on her way out of politics, and so doesn’t need to get involved in the day-to-day politicking. “[This] allows her to play the role of the careful mother who stands above all the arguments and tussles,” Neugebauer said.
The coronavirus crisis has helped Merkel regain her international voice and credibility at a crucial time for her future legacy.
Germany is due to take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in July, which means the Chancellor will be chairing key EU leaders’ meetings and representing Europe internationally. The current head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is a long-term Merkel ally.
Merkel’s freshly-rediscovered political appeal begs an obvious question: Would she consider running again and serve a fifth term?
“There have been rumors, there are still rumors, but I think it’s unlikely,” Neugebauer said. “I’ve learned to say ‘Never say never,’ but she has the experience now to know that she would not get the support of the party – the party, the Christian Democrats [CDU], is split.”
“She said it so often that there is no way. This is the end,” Wolfgang Merkel added.
This story has been updated to clarify that Merkel has a doctorate.