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.

Prag­matic Per­sis­tence

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.

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