Merkel faces Greek challenge with political capital
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged undamaged from the global financial crisis, European bailouts, an astonishing U-turn on nuclear power and the crisis over Ukraine.
Now, with the future of efforts to resolve Greece’s fiscal woes up in the air, the long-serving leader looks well- placed to emerge strong even if they fail.
Over a decade leading Europe’s biggest economy, Merkel has enjoyed consistently high popularity and accumulated a store of political capital at home that would be the envy of most other leaders on the continent.
Her conservative Christian Democratic Union party has a seemingly unassailable poll lead, no credible challenger is in sight and the German economy is strong. Her steady-handed, reassuring and risk-averse leadership style resonates with German voters and has earned her the nick- name “Mutti,” or Mama.
Merkel has said repeatedly that her aim is to keep Greece in the euro. But voters are unlikely to hold a failure of that effort against her “because she has owned this role of protector in the euro crisis for several years,” said Peter Matuschek, the head of political and social research at Germany’s Forsa polling agency.
“The majority have the impression that she’s doing what she can, and if it doesn’t work out it probably wasn’t down to her,” he said, with Greece’s government widely viewed in Germany as the culprit for the standoff.
Merkel’s knack for reassuring Germans that she has a confusing crisis under control dates back at least to 2008 when, amid the fallout from Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, she announced that the government was guaranteeing all private bank savings.
Since the eurozone debt crisis first flared in 2010, dragging Germany into a leadership role, she has kept up a delicate balancing act: helping struggling countries that accept tough budget cuts and reforms while convincing Germans she is defending their interests — and wallets.
It was the German leader who advocated bringing in the International Monetary Fund, with its experience as a tough taskmaster in international bailouts, to deal with Greece. But Merkel also has taken care to keep communications open with Greek leader Alexis Tsipras, an ideological adversary, as negotiations bogged down.
That pragmatic persistence has become a Merkel trademark. It also has been on show in the crisis over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. She has won plaudits at home for tireless efforts to keep up dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and prevent the conflict from escalating.
At the same time, she has kept the country largely behind economic sanctions against Russia despite their costs to German industry.
Merkel’s slow- but- steady approach to policy — she has frequently said Europe’s debt crisis must be tackled “step by step” — plays well at home. She told German lawmakers last week that every move on Greece has been and will be “very well-considered.”
Her one major departure from that approach came in 2011, when she abruptly accelerated the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power plants following meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima plant. Her government had decided only a few months earlier to extend the plants’ lives. The about-face initially unsettled supporters, but has helped in the long term by defusing a sensitive issue for her party.
If Greece and its creditors pull off a deal to avoid bankruptcy this time, Germany’s Parliament will have to sign off.