Will Germany vote for 'Mummy' Merkel again?

Germans go to the polls Sunday in what has been a remarkably passion-free election, Don Murray writes. Chancellor Angela Merkel looks to be on track for a third term, the only issue being whether she will be forced into a 'grand coalition' again with her primary opponent.

Chancellor on track for a third term, but coalition may change

Merkel supporters hold up a placard that reads "Mummy", as they listen to the German chancellor and conservative Christian Democratic Union leader at a CDU election rally in Magdeburg on Sept. 17. The two-term chancellor began the campaign with a 60 per cent approval rating in August. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)

Shall we vote for Mummy again?

Mummy —​ Mutti —as she has increasingly been called in Germany, is Angela Merkel, and "four more years with Mummy" has been the overriding issue in the election campaign leading up to Sunday's vote.

The two-term chancellor wanted it that way. Her face and her words dominate her party's campaign. Maß und Mitte (moderation and the middle ground) is her party's slogan, chosen by her.

Her party is the Christian Democrat Union, which has been in power for 44 of the 64 years since the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.

As for the party's manifesto — "she's it," says historian Edgar Wolfrum.

When the German campaign began in August, no less than 60 per cent of the electorate wanted to see her return as chancellor. In a time of crisis, Mummy was comforting.

Even her relatively pedestrian showing in the one television debate of the campaign in early September didn't seem, at first, to dent her party's solid lead.

Known as Mutti (Mummy) or Angie to her supporters, the two-term German chancellor, shown here at a campaign event on Wednesday, is more of a mystery outside her country, and less of a mummy figure. (Tobias Schwarz / Reuters)

Though in these final campaign days, Merkel's smooth cruise looks to have hit a bit of choppy water.

Her only serious opponent, Social Democrat Leader Peer Steinbrueck (Merkel's finance minister in a previous incarnation), threw caution to the winds in a rather un-German way. He was photographed literally giving the finger to the electorate.

But rather than torpedo his party, the SPD, it seemed to buoy it up.


Steinbrueck's gesture was not spontaneous; he knew what he was doing.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung, a big newspaper, has a regular feature in which well-known people respond not with words but with gestures and expressions to questions they're asked. These gestures are then photographed and published.

Steinbrueck was asked about his many campaign gaffes and the nicknames they've spawned, the most damning and most amusing being "Peerlusconi," a play on Italy's former playboy prime minister.

His answer was the finger, and his message was clear: I don't give a damn what you think of me.

The last opinion poll of the campaign indicated the SPD climbing, to 28 per cent, and Merkel's CDU becalmed, even dropping slightly to 40 per cent. An enormous gap, you say, but …

Enter Germany's small parties and coalition politics.

Since 1949, every German government except one has been a coalition, thanks to an electoral law that distributes half the seats in the Bundestag, the federal legislature, on the basis of proportional representation. (As well, a party must win at least five per cent of the votes cast to get seats.)

There's the rub for Merkel. The junior party in her coalition, the Free Democrats, are hovering at the crucial five per cent level. Any lower on Sunday and they disappear from parliament and the coalition.

Then what?

A grand coalition?

Well, the polls show that what most Germans want is a "grosse coalition" of Merkel's party and Steinbrueck's. It would hardly be novel.

Social Democratic party leader Peer Steinbrueck, the former finance minister in Merkel's first coalition government from 2005-09, is her main opponent this time. (Fabian Bimmer / Reuters)

Merkel's first government, from 2005-09, a period that included the worldwide financial meltdown, was a grand coalition and Steinbrueck was her finance minister.

Why this hankering for another grand coalition with Merkel at its head (a sure recipe for smothering debate)?

And why has this campaign been so almost content-free?

(For example, every outsider noticed that the future of the euro, in which Germany's role is preponderant, was the first question of the televised leaders' debate — only to be batted away by quick offerings of tired clichés, never to return.)

The answer seems to lie in Germany's brutal 20th-century history.

For almost 30 years, from 1918 to 1945, politics in Germany was fiercely ideological and ferocious. In the 1920s and early '30s, it lived in the street, far from polite debate, closer to war, fought by militias attached to the Communists and the Nazis, whose eventual reign left a land blasted and flattened, millions dead.

So searing was the experience that much of mainstream West German politics was dominated by the drive to drain ideological poison from the system.

The two longest-serving chancellors, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, were reassuring figures, both draped with reassuring nicknames — der Alte (the old man) for Adenauer who first became chancellor aged 73 and continued in the job for 14 years, and die Birne (the pear) for the pear-shaped Kohl, chancellor for 16 years.

The vision of both men was of a Germany finally united (realized by Kohl) and safely and firmly anchored in Europe.

The wall always wins

Mutti Merkel, too, has a reassuring nickname and, having grown up in a regime driven by tired but invasive ideology in East Germany, is perhaps the least interested in ideological politics of the three big CDU chancellors.

This is how she once summed her approach to ideology: "Pounding your head against a wall won't work. In the end the wall always wins."

Her political fortunes may wax and wane but here tourists imitate the trademark rhombus hand gesture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they stand next to her new wax figure at the Madame Tussauds wax museum in Berlin earlier this week. (Thomas Peter / Reuters)

Instead, moderation and the middle ground. What the British call muddling through.

In this instance, a growing economy and unemployment a fraction of what it is in much of the rest of Europe complete the winning formula.

If confirmation was needed, the Bavarian provincial election last weekend saw the regional branch of Merkel's CDU, the CSU, win no less than 49 per cent of the vote. Merkel's smile could only widen.

Any further problems in Greece, a resurgence of the euro crisis, the need for more bailout money and German leadership — all that can wait until after the vote. Waiting, in Merkel's lexicon, is always good.

And so Mummy waits, and expects, as does the country, a third-term as chancellor, a job that now makes her by far the most powerful leader of Europe.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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