Angela Merkel and the art of political balance

By Carsten Nickel

It's a trick not every political leader can pull off: put some 420 billion euro on the European table to protect Europe's weakest economies from default and remain your country's most popular politician. That's what Angela Merkel has managed. Despite having made unpopular concessions to Greece only a few days earlier, delegates of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) re-elected her as party leader with close to 98 percent support last week. Her public approval ratings remain north of 60 percent, and the trust that German voters have in Merkel's management of the eurozone crisis puts the Chancellor and her party in a strong position ahead of general elections next September.

The reason behind these impressive figures is that Merkel's mix of strong commitment to Europe on the one hand and the push for structural reform in southern Europe on the other exactly reflects the policy preferences of the average German voter. Divert too far from this path to the right, as Merkel's junior coalition partner, the Liberals, attempted in some regional election campaigns last year, and German voters will punish you for your lack of European solidarity. Step too far to the left, like opposition Social Democrats (SPD) have tried with calls for Eurobonds and a debt redemption fund, and voters lose trust in your ability to defend the German taxpayers' interests. In the middle stands Merkel. Her calm, approachable persona and her centrist incrementalism have persuaded German voters that two conflicting goals can be achieved: Save Europe and limit the financial burden on Berlin.

With strategic clarity, Merkel has also drawn the right conclusions from the decline of her former coalition partner, the SPD. Social Democrats still suffer from the disappointment caused by the supply-side reforms introduced under former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder during the early 2000s. The party's vote share has halved over the last 15 years. In response, Merkel maintains a centrist political position, enabling her to form coalitions with the Liberals, the SPD, or potentially even the Greens. And by offering little opportunity to attack her along the clear-cut lines of left-right politics, Merkel makes sure that traditional SPD voters do not return to the polls anytime soon, denying the party an easy way out of its misery.

Ahead of the 2013 elections, Merkel is therefore unlikely to come under pressure to depart from her current policies. The negative result is that silver-bullet solutions for the eurozone crisis remain unlikely and structural problems such as intra-eurozone imbalances will not be addressed. On the upside, investors in Germany will find it reassuring that the country's high-productivity export model is unlikely to be challenged by calls for demand-side policies. German companies will therefore remain in a strong position to compete for market share in emerging economies across the globe. In Berlin, meanwhile, only one politician wins: Angela Merkel.

Carsten Nickel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Europe practice.

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