July 5, 2010 8:26 pm
Angela Merkel is not a woman who takes risks lightly. In politics, the German chancellor plays a long game and tries to calculate all the angles.
Yet last Saturday she took a huge risk. She flew to South Africa to watch Germany play Argentina in the quarter-finals of the football World Cup. It was the sort of high-profile gesture politics that she hates (unlike Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president). There was a real risk that the national team would be bundled out of the competition by the joint favourites.
Germany’s triumph put the chancellor’s ecstatic picture all over German television and the Sunday newspapers. She was literally jumping out of her seat, raising her fists in the air to celebrate a goal. She had predicted a 2-1 win. When the whistle blew on a 4-0 victory, she even kissed Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, in celebration.
It could not have come at a better time for Ms Merkel. She had just suffered one of the most damaging weeks of her chancellorship, with a rebellion in the ranks of her own centre-right supporters against Christian Wulff, her choice of candidate for federal president. Although he won in the end against Joachim Gauck, the independent promoted by the opposition, the election was seen as a slap in the face for the chancellor and her government.
“For many, it was not about Gauck or Wulff, but about Merkel,” said Wolfgang Schäuble, her veteran finance minister.
So what are the chances that success for Germany in the World Cup might revive the political fortunes of the chancellor, whose popularity ratings have taken a dive in recent weeks?
Old hands caution against such simplistic notions. “When Germany came third in the World Cup in 2006 it gave a great lift to the national mood,” according to one of her close advisers. “It did nothing to improve the popularity of the government. It’s the economy, not football that counts.”
But the economy is looking up, too. In 2006, unemployment topped 5m and the mood in the grand coalition of Ms Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union with the centre-left Social Democratic party was miserable. The parties quarrelled interminably about health reform, and their public esteem was in the doldrums.
This time the economy should be helping the chancellor. Unlike most of the rest of the industrialised world, Germany is showing many signs of a sustained recovery from the crisis. Jobless figures have been dropping for 12 consecutive months, and may even fall below 3m before the end of the year. Retail sales have been up three months in a row, export orders are booming, and forecasts for growth of GDP this year and next range up to 2.5 per cent.
“Germany is back,” trumpeted Rainer Brüderle, economy minister, in parliament last week. “Not just in sport: in the economy and in politics, too.”
Yet the economic recovery does not seem to have percolated through to the population in general. A feeling of insecurity is still the most significant factor affecting the poor government polling figures. Worries about Greece and the eurozone debt crisis are compounded by the feeling that Ms Merkel is not in control of her centre-right government, which has been riven by public disagreements since it came to power last October.
Dirk Schumacher, chief economist for Germany at Goldman Sachs, sees the headlines about the eurozone problems and the budget deficit still weighing on minds.
One problem may be that the government has exaggerated the scale of its planned four-year €80bn ($100bn, £66bn) austerity programme. “People are scared that the savings package may hit them,” says Mr Schumacher. “I wonder whether the strategy of coming out with huge numbers was right. The discretionary change in the deficit is less than 0.5 percentage point – too small to really matter.”
Getting the message across is part of the problem. It is compounded by disarray in the coalition.
For all her love of football, Ms Merkel is seen as too aloof from her own party, and failing to forge a team playing towards the same goal. But she is unlikely to change her style or her team, say those in the know. “Eternal perseverance is her motto,” they say.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.