Lessons from Angela Merkel for Leo Varadkar

Online Editorimage

By Cormac Lucey

So Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is on the way out. On Monday she announced that she would not contest her party’s leadership at its conference this December. She also stated that she intends remaining chancellor until the next scheduled German Federal elections in September 2021. Time will tell whether she manages to hold on that long. Why should she get to enjoy the power of governmental office while someone else must bear the political responsibility for her actions?

The hard truth is that Frau Doktor Merkel’s political authority has been eroding fast since her summer 2015 decision to admit over a million refugees into Germany rather than physically turn them around at the border, by force if necessary. At last year’s federal election her party’s share of the national vote dropped from 42 per to 33 per cent but she was able to cobble together an agreement with the Social Democrats to form a new government with her at its head.

Worse for the Christian Democrat leaders than the heavy loss of electoral support was the fact that a clear political rival to her party’s right has established itself. There are many different labels that can be applied to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD): extremist, far-right, racist, nationalist and populist. I doubt that all (or even a majority) of its members are racist: but I would guess that most German racists vote for the party.

German racism is a beast which hasn’t been allowed out in public for several decades following the utterly disastrous legacy left by the Nazis. But it’s been there below the surface, for any who cared to lift the carpet and look below. I took a job in a small town in eastern Germany, in 1991 within six months of German reunification. The local newspaper regularly reported racist attacks on the migrant workers (Angolans, Vietnamese etc) that the East Germans had invited to the GDR. In 1992 there were mob attacks on (mainly Vietnamese) migrants in the Lichtenhagen district of Rostock, Germany, featuring stones, petrol bombs and several thousand applauding onlookers.

It is an irony of history that AfD started life as a liberal, anti-Euro party when it was first co-founded by its first leader, Professor Bernd Lucke. He has since left the party he founded, claiming that it had “fallen irretrievably into the wrong hands.” The woman who ousted him as leader Frauke Petry, has also walked out of the party after she failed to change the party’s policies to appeal to more moderate voters. Political parties are Darwinian beasts – they generally move in the direction where their survival is best guaranteed, regardless of what a Lucke, a Petry or even a Merkel may believe. The political gap in Germany in recent years has been well to the right of the mainstream and the AfD has marched into it.

An old political aphorism holds that political leaders are either bookies or bishops: they are either cold evaluators of the political odds or passionate preachers of a cause they fervently believe. Merkel – who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry after all – is the ultimate bookie: calm, calculating and considered. But, as a result, nobody’s quite sure what she really stands for. Merkel has built her political success as German chancellor on triangulation. This involves presenting your ideology as being above left and right and borrowing ideas from your political opponents. That neutralises you from political attacks by those adversaries. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were masters of the practice, stealing conservatives’ clothes on issues such as crime, welfare reform and economic management.

In Germany, Merkel has moved her party into the centre and centre-left that has traditionally been the territory of the German Social Democrats. This has been a big contributory factor towards the halving of the SPD vote since 1998. But the problem with moving towards the centre to occupy political space previously held by your opponents is that you vacate ground on the political edges that you once held.

It is telling that, having enjoyed considerable electoral success under Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the Democrats (in the US) and Labour (in the UK) both face considerable internal bitterness and division as those cast aside under centrist rule now make a comeback behind the banners of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Angela Merkel’s problem is that she must now face similar bitterness and division from erstwhile supporters who feel she has abandoned them. In very large part this is due to the dislocating impact of her decision to admit those refugees in 2015. It is notable that, faced with a similar dilemma, President Trump has deployed 5,200 troops to the US border to repel Honduran refugees and migrants approaching through Mexico.

Merkel’s admission of refugees gave the AfD party (led by Alice Weidel, pictured above) a massive electoral impulse. It destabilised her own right-wing. And it meant that, even when she was able to put together a government after losing a lot of votes last year, that government was hopelessly divided between those who stood over her refugee admission decision and those who resented it and wanted to reverse its key electoral consequence, the rise of the AfD.

Consequently, for the last twelve months, Angela Merkel has been in office but not in power. Worse still, the downward trend in her electoral support has continued. Last weekend, in regional elections in Hesse, her party scored just 27 per of the vote. That represented a four per cent reduction on its vote there just thirteen months ago. It was a similar story a few weeks earlier in Bavaria, where the vote of her CSU regional allies was down by 2 per cent. She now hopes that, by accelerating the announcement of the date of her political retirement she can hang on to the chancellorship until 2021, the scheduled date of the next German federal elections. Time will tell whether this gambit succeeds. But, even if it does work, Merkel will be reduced to the role of a caretaker prime minister.

What are the lessons from Merkel for Ireland? Political triangulation may be a successful short-term political tactic for individual political leaders but, in the longer-term, it is an expensive political strategy for the parties they lead.

Leo Varadkar’s tactics of out-greening Fianna Fáil (with his Brexit negotiating stance) of horse-whispering to the right (looking out for people who get up early in the morning and bemoaning the fact that many of us “pay for everything and qualify for nothing”) and governing for the left (raising taxes in last month’s budget even though tax revenues are already growing at over 6 per cent per annum) will work politically as long Fine Gael faces no organised political opposition from its right. Then his tactics and his leadership will collapse, just like Merkel’s. If 23 per cent of the electorate will vote for an amateur like Peter Casey who badly articulates their political disgruntlement, how many might vote for a polished and coherent champion of their views?

Published in The Times (Ireland edition)

November 1st 2018