World

Angela Merkel’s chemistry in motion

By J Brooks Spector 25 September 2013

On Sunday, Angela Merkel won a smashing victory in Germany’s parliamentary elections, guaranteeing her a third tour of duty as the country’s Chancellor. Her party, the Christian Democrats (and their usual joined-at-the-hip partner the Bavaria-based Christian Socialist Union), actually came sufficiently close to winning a majority, a level of support at the polls that hasn’t been seen in a German election in some two decades. This victory has cemented her position as Europe’s most important leader, and it has made her de facto president of Europe and one of the world’s most dominant political leaders. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a cut at defining her importance and future impact.

Following Merkel’s win, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen reprised the old Henry Kissinger story to make his point. At the height of the Cold War, when the secretary of state was advised to consider the European position on some international issue, rather than act unilaterally Kissinger is said to have snapped at his aide, saying, “Europe? Whose phone number is that?” Cohen’s judgment is that now we know whose phone number it is: Angela Merkel’s in Berlin, and it’s almost certain that number will continue to be the one to call for years to come.

Even before this latest election Forbes magazine had already put her in first place among global “power women”, and in second place among the globe’s “power people”. And her newest victory has certainly done nothing to drop her down a notch or two. Who else could there be? The major German newspaper Die Welt’s front-page commentary on her victory was simply titled, “Larger-than-life great, Angela Merkel”. And millions of German voters have taken to calling her “Mutti” or “Mummy”, a demonstration of their fealty towards her steady stewardship of the German nation and economy (and Europe as a whole, it seems) in difficult times.

Ironically, in her smashing victory Merkel’s party lost it usual junior partner, the Free Democrats, who managed to fall off the German electoral cliff, dropping just below the magic 5% of the electorate needed for them to gain any proportional representation in the parliament. As a result, in creating her newest government Merkel is almost inevitably going to be reaching across to the Social Democratic Party – defeated by her to be sure, but still significantly larger than the more radical Green Party, for example. This will presumably be to build what will be called “the grand coalition”. The SDP won 26% of the electorate to the CDU/CSU’s 41.5%, in contrast to the Free Democrats’ 4.8%, the Greens’ 8.4%, and The Left’s 8.6%, as well as the Alternative for Germany’s result of 4.7%.

After the election results were in, the BBC commented on the outcome: “The result is nevertheless a ringing endorsement of her steady leadership during the euro zone crisis. CDU parliamentary group leader Volker Kauder said that the party ‘has a clear mandate from voters to form a government’. The outcome showed that ‘voters want Angela Merkel to remain chancellor’ for a third term, he said … Mrs Merkel has made clear she would be prepared to work with the Social Democrats (SPD) in a grand coalition, as she did in 2005-09.” Although the Social Democratic Party’s leader, Peer Steinbrueck, has said he was not prepared to serve in a coalition with Merkel again, the BBC says that German analysts “say that whatever the shape of the coalition that ends up forming the government, there probably will not be any significant policy shifts, although Germany might take a slightly softer approach to austerity in the eurozone.”

With this victory, then, it seems very unlikely Merkel will shift directions on her vision for austerity as the cure for the euro zone’s financial woes, despite the expansionist goals of some of the zone’s other governments like France’s President Hollande. The Times’ Cohen notes, “She has walked the fine line between her nation’s demand for fiscal prudence and the salvation of the euro. She has also walked the very fine line for Germany between demands for leadership and perceptions of ominous dominance. Perhaps, in a likely grand coalition with the Social Democrats (the people’s party no more), and without the neo-liberal Free Democrats, she will show a little more growth-oriented indulgence toward the likes of Greece. She should, but any change will be marginal.” German policy on the euro zone, just as with its policies on the countries within it, seems unlikely to be much altered as a result.

But Merkel’s victory, and the sense she seems right for the temperament of Germany’s people, can also lead one to contemplate the nature of leadership, and, in particular, the nature of successful female leadership in politics. In classical Greek mythology, Pallas Athena was the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, justice, just warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts and other crafts. In other words, Pallas Athena, the exemplar of a successful woman leader, was the supreme multi-tasker, rather like a modern head of government and just as clearly a role model of serious proportions. Of course, if one is a male president like Barack Obama, perhaps the right thing to do is to recruit some seriously bright, talented, forceful women as advisors like Valerie Jarrett (counsellor the president), Susan Rice (as the new national security advisor) and Samantha Power (as the new US ambassador to the UN) as a way to tap into Pallas Athena’s supposed attributes. And maybe Dr Janet Yellen, currently the Federal Reserve Bank’s Deputy Governor, will be promoted come spring 2014 as well. (Of course, why SA President Jacob Zuma ever let Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma move to Addis Ababa is a question that might be asked right about now.)

Consider just a partial listing of some of the modern world’s more notable female heads of government. Individuals as varied as Germany’s Merkel, Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, India’s Indira Gandhi, The Philippines’ Corazon Aquino, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, Israel’s Golda Meir, New Zealand’s Helen Clark, Norway’s Gro Harlem Brundtland, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. Out of such a varied list, can one make any larger observations about them? At first blush, at least, it seems that they may fall into three broad categories, almost regardless of their individual politics and policies – or their places on the right-centre-left continuum.

Sometimes pop psychologists and even some feminist theorists have tried to assert women are just inherently more suitable for leadership in our time. According to that perspective, this is because they are more humane, they have an innate grasp of the complexities of life and they are simply more empathetic towards the weak and downtrodden – perhaps as a distant reflection of the instincts that underpin the role of nurturing motherhood. (In a more traditional way of phrasing such an argument, South African President Zuma recently – and rather controversially – argued all women need to assume the role of wife and mother as part of their maturation.) But such a position would seem to be less than capable of explaining the cold, crisp decisiveness of a Golda Meir, “the best man in the cabinet” as her supporters and detractors alike often called her, or a Margaret Thatcher, that “Iron Lady” notably not designed for turning.

Contemplating the electoral returns in Germany, The Guardian observed, “Of course, whenever a woman gets political power, the psychoanalysts come out to play. This was true 13 years ago, at Merkel’s ascension to the CDU leadership. Then she was identified as the female Oedipus – who had to kill her political father, Helmut Kohl (whose reign had become toxic in a party donations scandal), to take control. Since Merkel owed so much to Kohl’s patriarchal nurturing, their relationship was invested with a dangerous tension: ‘On the one hand, Merkel was promoted by Kohl, on the other she was always dismissed as “the girl”,’ observed the psychoanalyst Thea Bauriedl in an interview with Die Zeit in 2000. Kohl’s subconscious message to Merkel was ‘You are important, but inferior’ – a common father-daughter dynamic. Merkel’s reaction was patricide. But today power has turned the girl into a mother.”

Globally perhaps, female prime ministerial or presidential figures can be divided into three rough categories. There would be women who have effectively inherited their position from a father or husband (often after a violent death); women who had studied and practiced another career and who had then migrated into politics; and those who came directly into politics as their first career love and perhaps only real profession beyond law studies.

Bandaranaike, Bhutto, and Aquino essentially stepped in behind a spouse or father following an assassination (although Benazir Bhutto’s father was Pakistan’s president years before her own first term of office and Bandaranaike had followed her husband after a period of political turmoil). While each of these women had large numbers of fervent supporters, their terms of office now are generally regarded as unsuccessful in building more stable democratic politics in their respective nations.

Indira Gandhi, of course, was the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, although she did not immediately succeed him. Despite the problems with her ruling style, many Indians still believe she was her country’s most successful prime minister. Similarly, South Korea’s Park Gyeun-hye is also the daughter of a previous (and assassinated) president, but their two terms were widely separated by other presidents and multiple elections. South Korea’s president, of course, has only recently taken office, and so it is far too early to speak of her success or the lack of it.

In a second category might be such leaders as Dilma Rousseff, Helen Clark or, again, Indira Gandhi. These are individuals who found their metier in politics and who rose steadily through their chosen party, perhaps with the mentoring of a more powerful figure like Brazil’s Lula or Gandhi’s father.

That third category, then, might well consist of such leaders as Brundtland (a physician), Robinson (a teacher), Meir (a teacher and labour organizer), Thatcher (a food chemist) and Angela Merkel (also a chemist). Of course, if things go as they might in the US in 2016, a former child rights attorney, first lady, senator and secretary of state, one Hillary Rodham Clinton, may join that last circle as well.

And so, does the success of Merkel and Thatcher – as politicians – say anything to future generations of young people who desire to enter politics later on in their own lives? Perhaps it says that the discipline of studying the sciences and then, later, entering the political fray may be the best possible mix of ambition and training, and an optimum predictor of success as a senior political leader. If you are female, that is. DM

For more, read:

  • Angela Merkel celebrates after German election win, at the BBC
  • Angela Merkel, at Forbes
  • Merkel the Great, a column by Roger Cohen in the New York Times
  • Angela Merkel: Germany’s mother, at the Guardian
  • Vote for Merkel Seen as Victory for Austerity, at the New York Times
  • A New U.S. Player, Put on World Stage by Syria, at the New York Times (a profile of Samantha Power)
  • Rice’s Blunt Style Endeared Her to President, but Not All, at the New York Times
  • Rice to Replace Donilon in the Top National Security Post at the New York Times

Photo: German Chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union ( CDU) Angela Merkel, smiles during a news conference after a CDU party board meeting in Berlin September 23, 2013, the day after the general election. Merkel faces the daunting prospect of persuading her centre-left rivals to keep her in power after her conservatives notched up their best election result in more than two decades but fell short of an absolute majority.  REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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