The German parliament, by withdrawing its confidence in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the chancellor, on Friday and opening the way for an early election in three months, has added to the mountain of expectations on Angela Merkel, leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Union.
People are looking to this stocky, uncharismatic pastor’s daughter who will turns 51 this month to pull the country out of its five-year stagnation, cure endemic unemployment, fix its bankrupt welfare state, mend its relationship with the US and help drag the European Union out of its institutional crisis.
Assuming it does come to a vote on September 18 – sizeable constitutional hurdles must still be overcome – and assuming she wins, as opinion polls suggest, can the lady pull this off? She could, but not for the reasons generally invoked by her admirers.
It would not be because she graduated as a scientist, or because she is a woman – she rejected emphatically the inevitable comparison with Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, when I put it to her in an interview two years ago – but because she is in many ways a foreigner.
Mention this to any CDU grandee, and he – most are male - will be throwing his arms up in the air. Yet if she succeeds as the eighth chancellor of post-war Germany, that will be the reason.
Although born in Hamburg, she grew up in Templin, East Germany, and studied in Leipzig. Two-thirds of her life were spent under as a citizen of one of the Soviet bloc’s worst dictatorships. When the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, a freshlynewly disembarked Italian passport-bearer from German-speaking South Tyrol would have felt more at home in the federal republic than the 35-year-old Ms Merkel.
Why, then, should this fractured biography make her potentially suited to confront the biggest economic and social challenges Germany has faced since it emerged in ruins from the second world war?
First, unlike most western Social and Christian Democrats of her generation, she has no romantic attachment to Germany’s obsolete welfare state, its heavily regulated social market economy and the cosy Rhineland brand of capitalism. practised for the past 60 years.
Second, as one German banker and intellectual sparring partner points out, “she sees the individual, not the state, as the central actor of political and economic life”. Her experience of totalitarianism means she values freedom and the formidable responsibilities it entails. These matter hugely because, as economic models around the world face heightened competition, the central task for Germany’s next leader will boil down to transferring some of the roles the state has come to assumed in the past six decades to the hands of individuals. Ms Merkel understands the two-stage mechanism that such a partial roll-back of the state would involve: through deregulation, it would first create opportunities for individuals, which they must then harness to play an enhanced role in securing their own welfare. ““It is individuals who generate goods and ideas and come into competition with one another,” she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this week. “The role of politics is to manage . . . competition to make it as efficient as possible while ensuring that the state is able to support the weakest.”
Having lived through the worst-case scenario, She knows what could happen if this transfer of power from state to individual is not achieved. In private, she likes to recount how, as a citizen of the German Democratic Republic, she watched an unsustainable economic and political system built over five decades collapse in a matter of months. She is determined, she says, not to let this happen again.
This is one feature she shares with the postwar generation of German politicians – from Konrad Adenauer to Willy Brandt – who lived through Germany’s moral and physical self-immolation and drew the right lessons as they rebuilt. their country.
“As a political type,” says Gerd Langguth, Ms Merkel’s not wholly uncritical biographer* and himself a CDU politician, “she is close to today’s eastern European politicians. She is acutely aware, for instance, of the positive role played by George Bush senior in helping to topple the Wall and bring about German reunification.”
This should equip her to tackle Germany’s other great challenge: to rebuild a transatlantic relationship damaged on both sides by the war in Iraq and engineer a rapprochement with the smaller countries of Europe after a near-decade of alienating,destructive, and arrogant Franco-German EU policies.
In fact, Mr Langguth’s main reservation about Ms Merkel – that she has no “deep, genuine Christian Democratic identity” – could be one of her main assets. As an outsider, and as a female East German childless divorcee, she is untainted by the chauvinism, xenophobia and bigotry that are the dark side of the Christian Democratic political culture. And having fought her way up almost single-handedly, she is not bound by inner-party loyalties.
She will face other constraints. Germany’s 16 state premiers sitting in the powerful upper house will force her into compromises, the empty state coffers will curb her room for manoeuvre in economic policy; and the deeply institutionalised Franco-German relationship will, for a while at least, compel her to handle President Jacques Chirac , this most unpredictable partner,with diplomatic grace.
Within these limits, however, she could begin to drag German politics away from the numbing consensual approach of her predecessors and forge a new style of leadership – , one that would be more vigorous, more efficient and, with individual freedom as its moral compass, no less democratic.*Angela Merkel, by Gerd Langguth, 2005, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 399 pages, €14.50.
The writer is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief