On November 22nd Angela Merkel celebrated her 15 year chancellorship. Before Angela Merkel, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl governed a similarly long period as German chancellor. Together, the three add up to 45 of a total of 70 years as German chancellors in the post-war period. Apart from the fact that Angela Merkel is one of the few incumbents among the otherwise male heads of state and government, she also represents the small group of East Germans in a leadership position. Perhaps that is why Angela Merkel was initially underestimated, who was able not only to stay in office for 15 years but also managed to pursue her political agenda in a conservative Union without support of a strong regional party association.
Merkel’s political success – known under the term Merkelism – is based on two basic characteristics. First, her extraordinarily unpretentious, unexcited and anachronistic style of leadership that appears non-populist, realistic compared to most other heads of state and government. Instead of demanding respect for her Chancellor and, if necessary, banging her fist on the table, Angela Merkel reacts quietly and calmly to provocations, but persistently pursues her policy goals. Second, in contrast to this, her policy agenda is obviously non-ideological, thematically flexible respectively opportunistically oriented towards the median voter. Whether it’s the energy transition, army reform, minimum wage, migration crisis, Covid-19 or European fiscal union – Angela Merkel’s policy agenda is always in the middle of the volatile opinion of the voters. To this end, even radical changes in party ideology are carried out without any great ifs and buts.
Regardless of all the challenges and crises, this Merkelism ensures the Union a party dominance, without which the formation of a government is not possible or at least seems almost impossible. And as the leader in charge, this party dominance secures Angela Merkel’s leadership position for a chancellorship that provides for policy authority in office. To do this, the Union under Angela Merkel has to repeatedly decide whether electoral success is more important than conservative party ideology. This sometimes leads to internal party disputes, especially between the CDU and CSU, but also within the CDU with the more conservative forces. And the other parties – whether coalition partners or opposition parties – suffer from the party dominance of the Union one party and a non-ideological leadership that adopts popular alternatives and makes others look like extras. Neither Liberals, Social democrats nor the Greens can win the favor of majority voters under Merkelism.
According to Angela Merkel, her chancellorship will end next year. Because of her unpretentious, unexcited and unpopular style of leadership, this statement seems credible. However, the unideological, changeable and extraordinarily opportunistic policy agenda towards the favor of the median voter speaks in favor of an extension of her chancellorship, which is given the Union and the Chancellor a new spring for the majority of voters since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, Angela Merkel has again been by far the most popular top politician and the Union dominates by far in favor of the voters. Perhaps in the end it will again be up to the Union to sacrifice its conservative party ideology for an extension of Merkelism. It remains an open questions whether one of the candidates for Union’s party chairmanship can replace Angela Merkel.