Merkel’s hardest year: how the pandemic changed the Chancellor

Merkel was challenged more in 2020 than seldom before in her chancellorship.

picture alliance / dpa | Kay Nietfeld

At her last long appearance in the Bundestag everything was apparently as always. In the government survey, parliamentarians asked questions, Angela Merkel replied. Originally, Question Time was set up so that the opposition could expose the government. But the Chancellor parried the attacks quickly and with humor. So she exposed the questioner instead of the other way around. Everything effortless. One could almost forget that it was perhaps her toughest year as Chancellor. And one that Merkel has also changed.

Review: In October 2018 Merkel announced that she no longer wanted to be CDU chairwoman. From this point on she is considered to be the on-call chancellor. In a survey at the end of 2018, 38 percent of those questioned wanted Merkel to be replaced as Chancellor early on. Under Merkel, a “fog of inactivity” had settled over Germany, said Friedrich Merz in October 2019. “It cannot go on like this,” he commented.

It went on. Merkel came back in 2020. In the role that she best accommodates: the crisis manager. Today 71 percent of Germans are satisfied with their work.

But popularity does not mean that Merkel could decide how she wanted. Seldom before has the limits been shown so clearly. Merkel had to deal with self-confident prime ministers who sometimes suggested exceptions for their state or who deliberately wanted to profile themselves against them.

Merkel’s authority had suffered. Even within the CDU Prime Minister, she had to reckon with contradictions again and again. Again and again, their party friends left shortly after laboriously negotiated compromises and questioned what had been achieved. Persevering in negotiating in the back room until they did what Merkel wanted – that no longer worked. The prime ministers were too volatile and their short-term interests too varied.

So Merkel changed her strategy – and above all her language. Merkel usually spins tapeworm sentences, remains vague, uses passive constructions, lots of nouns, “man” instead of “I”. Language that veils rather than names.

Different this year. On March 18, she turned to the Germans in a TV address, almost 30 million people watched. Merkel called the crisis the “greatest challenge” since the Second World War. A week later she agreed with the Prime Minister on the first nationwide lockdown.

Merkel seemed close to tears

Germany got through the summer well. The whole country seemed to be leaving the pandemic behind and went on vacation. Many politicians apparently did the same to their citizens, because when autumn approached there were not enough protective masks, no concepts for digital teaching in schools and no test strategy. It really didn’t bother anyone, the numbers were low. When Merkel warned at the end of September that 20,000 new infections should be expected every day at Christmas, some accused her of panic.

The numbers rose, and the “lockdown light” followed in November. He didn’t stop the second wave. Merkel had advocated tougher measures. But she didn’t manage to get through.

As the prime ministers continued to resist tightening the rules, Merkel remembered her tactics from March and delivered what was perhaps the most emotional speech of her entire chancellorship during the general debate. Merkel pleaded, her voice cracking. When we said: “If we have too many contacts before Christmas and then it was the last Christmas with the grandparents, then we will have missed something, we shouldn’t do that,” Merkel seemed close to tears.

It worked. Four days later, the prime ministers agreed a sharp lockdown until January 10th. All the points requested by Merkel were implemented.

The emotionality shows what close confidants from internal circles report: The pandemic is closer to Merkel than the other major crises of her term of office, the financial, euro and refugee crisis.

In each of these crises Merkel had great responsibility, but this time it is not about something abstract like the “stability of the monetary system”. It is also not a question of whether you can accommodate and record people arriving in Germany and process their asylum applications. The corona crisis goes deeper. It affects everyone. It dominates all areas of life. It’s about who can go on vacation and when, in which shops you can go shopping. Who can celebrate like Christmas. And it’s always about whether people get sick as a result of these acts. And die. It’s about life and death.

At the same time, Merkel’s decisions are advancing into areas that hardly any democratic politician has to regulate. Interventions in working life, in the economy, in freedom of movement. Merkel herself called the pandemic “a democratic imposition”.

The fact that Merkel tends to take the hard line in the pandemic also has to do with the lessons of past crises, says political scientist Wolfgang Schroeder from the University of Kassel. “Merkel’s traumatic experience was the loss of control in the refugee crisis in September 2015. One interpretation is that she now wants to demonstrate in the corona pandemic that she has the situation under control.”

In the crisis, the way people work changed, and the frequency increased for Merkel too. Video conference follows video conference, and in the pandemic there are no travel times of five, four or three hours during which Merkel cannot be reached and can rest. The workload has increased for them too.

Merkel also receives praise from her political opponents for her work. Brandenburg’s Prime Minister Dietmar Woidke (SPD) told “I have great respect for the way the Chancellor is currently dealing with the Corona crisis, the EU Council Presidency and Brexit, among many other important issues. There is nothing of official fatigue. “

Woidke also praised the Chancellor’s “reason and vision”. In fact, it is said that Merkel wants to fully understand every problem, weigh all possibilities and then make the best decision. The fatal thing about this crisis: In this crisis it is dependent on people who are not under control. Above all, these are the citizens. Political processes can be controlled, but people’s behavior cannot. But against all admonitions, these continue to meet and so the number of infections remains high.

The physicist with a doctorate must be even more irritated when tens of thousands of anti-vaccination opponents and conspiracy theorists demonstrate and make scientific arguments ridiculous. Merkel called the conspiracy theorists’ actions an “attack on our whole way of life.”

What happens now? With the start of the vaccination campaign, the end of the pandemic is foreseeable, even if tough months will follow in 2021. Then in the summer, shortly before the end of her reign, Merkel’s last crisis could have been through. Everyone who comes after her has great footsteps to fill. Her desired successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has not been able to keep herself as the CDU leader. It cannot be ruled out that others will fail too.


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