First night without “Moti”? Well, not really. After sixteen years, some of them difficult and dramatic, Chancellor Angela Merkel, or as she is affectionately called “Mutti,” a mother in German, is happy to go home. She’s tired, and it’s noticeable on her. Unlike other leaders, who upon their retirement were quick to fill their diaries with well-publicized lectures, meetings and farewell tours, Merkel mostly wants some quiet.
The priest’s daughter, who grew up in East Germany, is initially expecting to return to a normal life in her small apartment in Berlin, and to think carefully about what she wants to do for the rest of her life. And no, the quiet after the storm does not scare her. “I am in no hurry to build myself a new agenda and routine,” she said candidly, a week before the election. “At this point in my life I first of all want to think carefully about what really lives in me. Do I want to write? To lecture? Or maybe I mainly want to be at home and travel the world? So I decided first of all I would not do anything. Mostly, I would wait for what came.”
The truth is that a quiet life in the apartment building in the upscale Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, alongside her husband Professor Joachim Zauer, sounds like not a bad option at all. Its home overlooking the River Spree, right next to the Pergamon Museum, is one of the most pleasant areas in Berlin. Merkel is well acquainted with the local supermarket as well, and even during the most turbulent periods of her long tenure has not given up on shopping as one person. It is an integral part of her quiet style, which has so endeared her to her voters. But Merkel will have to wait another long weeks, maybe even months, for the long-awaited silence to come. The results of the elections held earlier this week in Germany will probably leave her in office for quite some time to come, perhaps even deep into the end of the year.
With all due respect and affection to Angela Merkel, after sixteen years Germany wants change, the election results show. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrat Party led by its new leader Armin Lasht, received 24 percent of the vote. In contrast, the Social Democratic Party, led by Olaf Schultz, received 25.7 percent of the vote. Seemingly a rather narrow victory for the Social Democrats. But the political dynamics show otherwise. While for Christian Democrats this is the worst result ever in an election, the Social Democrats are on a clear runway. In recent months they have been galloping in the polls and rising from third to first place, and in truth results they have shown a five per cent increase over the previous election. The gap is also evident in the level of popularity of the leaders. Asht, Merkel’s heir, does not receive too much sympathy from the general public. Schultz, on the other hand, also known as “the boring Olaf”, actually enjoys broad support, in any case much more than Lasht.
The hard way
And yet it will not be easy, because like the State of Israel, the one who forms the government is not necessarily the largest party, but the one who manages to form a new coalition. And as it seems at the moment, despite the message from the electorate, Asht and the Christian Democratic Party will do everything in their power to try to form their own coalition. The Social Democrats have no illusions about this. They know that the road to a coalition will be long and full of bumps. Schultz this week expressed the hope that a new coalition led by him would be formed in Germany by Christmas. That means at least another three months under Merkel’s rule.
Apparently there is a possibility of forming a coalition of the two major parties, as has been the case so far under Merkel. But winds of change are blowing in Germany, and in the days before the election both parties ruled out what was. Moreover, Schultz has already made it clear to Christian Democrats that he expects them to accept the election results and go into opposition.
This is where the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party, also known as the “Liberals”, come into play. The Greens, who have won the best result in their history, nearly 15 percent of the vote, are natural candidates to join the Social Democrats. In contrast, the Liberals with 11.5 percent are natural allies of the Christian Democrats. The question is whether the way will be found to put together Green Party leader Anlina Barbock and Liberal leader Christian Lindner in a coalition led by the Social Democrats.
It will not be easy or simple. Lindner is a tough negotiator, who has already stated that the only common ground for him and the Greens is the shared recognition of the necessity of legalizing cannabis. But Schultz, the leading candidate to be the next chancellor, has already described the new coalition as he sees it: “Voters have sent a very clear message,” he said. “They have strengthened us, the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats. This is the mandate given by the citizens of the country to the three parties to lead the next coalition.”
Schultz is accurate. The clearest message the German voter conveyed this week is the growing concern about the climate crisis. The insight that has permeated the general public in Germany is that this is no longer something theoretical, but an event happening here and now, and that the problem of global warming is no longer just a topic for scientists’ conferences and warnings. And the growing environmental awareness, especially among the younger generation in Germany, is creating a new politics and a new agenda.
But this insight came the hard way. Last July, the Germans received a resounding wake-up call, which more than ever illustrated to them the very concrete implications of the climate crisis. The floods that Germany experienced last summer are what brought about the change. Although Germany has an excellent flood forecasting system, the government meteorological agency has even issued a “purple code” warning, which is the most severe. But the unusual amount of rain that fell last summer defeated the system. The rapid rise of river water simply left no time for preparation.
The clearest message conveyed by the German voter is the growing concern about the climate crisis. Last summer’s floods were a resounding wake-up call
Germany, a first world country and a global leader, has experienced a catastrophe more reminiscent of third world countries. Cellular, electricity and water networks were cut off, thousands were evacuated from their homes that were flooded or collapsed, and about two hundred people lost their lives. And if after 16 years of rule in Germany the feeling has matured that the time has come for change, the floods have come and established the insight that the climate crisis is the most significant challenge that will have to be faced in the coming years. In this context, the fact that Olaf Schultz, the leader of the Social Democrats, in his role as finance minister in Merkel’s coalition led the transfer of financial support to residents, while Merkel’s successor, Armin Lasht, was caught laughing on TV during the traumatic event of the floods, also contributed to the small gap. Significant for the benefit of the Social Democrats.
In Europe, the change in Germany is being closely monitored. On the one hand, there is a clear concern that neither of the two major parties has managed to rise to 30 percent support. Such a result calls into question the stability of Europe’s largest economy, which will need a multi-party coalition. This question mark is expected to grow even further if the coalition train craft continues. To this is added the concern from the elections that will also take place in France this spring, which are probably going to be a very difficult story. But bottom line, the “boring Schultz” is a pragmatic and experienced leader. His drama-free style is reminiscent of Merkel’s style, and he has also ensured continuity in German foreign policy. Which means strengthening the EU, and maintaining close relations with the US.
But as mentioned, tackling the climate crisis is the most significant challenge for the next decade, even if events like the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan or the refugee crisis are repeatedly on the agenda. Dealing with the climate crisis has many implications beyond the issue itself, including the assimilation of futuristic technologies that can propel Germany forward. It means entering the age of electric cars, investing in advanced transportation infrastructure and a gradual but aggressive transition from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy. And it also means a massive investment in education to produce a generation that can also cope with innovation, which could leave many behind. The truth is that although Germany is a technologically advanced country, its cellular infrastructure is not very advanced, and government ministries still communicate by fax.
Between Trump and Putin
If Merkel is asked how she sees her legacy, the answer may lie in what she said at her party’s election conference, where she was asked to define her achievements. Merkel has chosen to focus on the way we “saved the euro”, as she puts it. “The principle by which we acted combined the responsibility of the countries affected by their economies, with solidarity. This was the right method of securing a future for the euro.”
It is not certain that the Greeks, who experienced a very severe economic crisis, would agree with her. Nor were many of the German citizens, who did not like the transfer of their tax money to the lazy Greeks. Or so they were perceived in their eyes. But Merkel was determined. Germany transferred huge fortunes to Greece through the European Union, a move that saved the Greek economy from a complete crisis, but also demanded from its citizens not simple economic and human prices. This is exactly what Merkel meant when she spoke of the connection between responsibility and solidarity.
This was not the only important but unpopular decision Merkel made. The decision to open Germany to the wave of refugees from the Middle East and Africa was clearly not economically, socially and morally simple, and it required a great deal of personal and political courage. And as in the case of support for Greece, it combined the matter of responsibility with the principle of solidarity.
Merkel’s relationship with world leaders can fill more than one chapter in the memories she may write. For example, its particularly complex relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, when it was forced to bridge the gap between Germany’s distinct interests, particularly in the field of energy, and alignment with Western sanctions policy on Russia following the Crimean crisis and Ukraine. She also probably will not forget the bizarre experience when Putin brought Connie, his formidable dog, into the room where he met with the chancellor, though he knew full well that she was afraid of dogs.
Merkel had an equally complex dialogue with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sent his ministers to run an election campaign under the nose of the large Turkish community in Germany. Merkel did not keep quiet, and when Erdogan’s conduct crossed every line, she did not hesitate to order the security forces to pursue one of his ministers who entered Germany by car to campaign for Erdogan, contrary to all understandings.
There is no need to say too much about the antagonism between Merkel and Donald Trump, which was visible and known to all. But Merkel stuck to a line that tried to minimize the gap and distance created in the Trump era between the US administration and the European Union and NATO. A process that is currently undergoing a massive correction under the Biden administration. The submarine affair obscured the overall positive picture, but Merkel, who will visit Israel next month, has strictly maintained her deep German commitment to the State of Israel.
And if German politics were a little more similar to Israeli politics, they would probably already have been offered that after a period of cooling and rest it would make a comeback as president, and remain Germany’s ultimate “moti”.