Powerful, puzzling and a lot like our Bertie
Published 24/09/2013 | 05:00
ANGELA Merkel is one of the most puzzling politicians in Europe. While she appears to be German to her fingertips, she also resembles that most Irish of politicians and her near contemporary – Bertie Ahern. There are obvious differences – the 59-year-old Merkel has yet to destroy her country's economy or appear in a tribunal in Dublin Castle – but there are also striking similarities.
Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament and a member of the rival SPD, explains her popularity like this: "It is Merkel's modest demeanour, her humble normality that so many Germans like and can relate to."
The same could have been said about Ahern during his three terms in office. Like Ahern, Merkel is a centrist and pragmatic politician who keeps her cards close to her chest while somehow articulating voters' desires and concerns. Both leaders also had similar careers, entering politics young and then growing up in the shadow of strong and charismatic leaders who eventually stumbled over political donations.
Merkel is every bit as cautious as Ahern and also pulled her party leftwards following election, partly out of conviction but also to create more coalition options and steal votes from socialist parties. Like Ahern, she is a (late) supporter of populist measures, such as a minimum wage, which make little sense economically but wins lots of votes.
Other characteristics include an uncanny ability to talk for long periods without saying anything of substance – although Merkel is far more articulate and speaks beautiful German.
Like Ahern, she has smashed taboos without making a big deal about it; Merkel is the Federal Republic's first East German leader and first woman leader, while Bertie Ahern was the first Irish leader to be separated from his wife and the first leader unable to speak passable Irish.
Those are some of the similarities with the last Irish politician to enjoy significant electoral and economic success, but the comparison cannot be taken too far. Like most East Germans, Merkel has had a much more complicated life than almost anybody who grew up in the Republic.
Born in Hamburg in 1954, Merkel moved with her family to East Germany as a baby when her father was offered a job as a pastor there. She grew up in Templin, a small town north of Berlin surrounded by rolling hills and picturesque lakes. Although her father belonged to a wing of the Protestant church that worked with, not against, the political system, the family was viewed as suspect by the communist authorities because of his religious role.
'EVERYTHING was a struggle: not to attract attention, to be just a little bit better than everyone else, to get into my desired school. Nothing was easy," she told journalist Hugo Mueller-Vogg in 'My Way', a book of interviews published in 2004.
Merkel has admitted to being so uncomfortable with surprises as a child that she took to drawing up her Christmas wishlist in advance.
"I always wanted to know what was around the corner, even if that came at the expense of spontaneity," she says in the book.
Though measured in public, Merkel has a wry sense of humour when at ease in a small group. She is known for her imitations of fellow leaders, like France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Russia's Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, she has a distinct reserve. She continues to use the formal "Sie" with even her closest strategists, office manager Beate Baumann and media adviser Eva Christiansen.
According to 'My Way', neither Baumann nor Christiansen have ever been to the Berlin apartment Merkel shares with her intensely private husband, quantum chemist Joachim Sauer.
Prominent German sociologist Ulrich Beck has another take. In his book 'German Europe' he uses the term "Merkiavellian" to describe her leadership during the euro crisis.
Beck argues that Merkel has pursued a European policy geared solely to her domestic audience. This approach has strengthened her national power base and led to the imposition of Germany's economic model across the bloc, fuelling resentment.
By hesitating at crucial times, he says, Merkel has simultaneously advanced and concealed Germany's rise to the position of "hegemonic power" in Europe.
As Merkel begins her third term, she is unlikely to spend much time thinking of Bertie Ahern's fate but she could do worse. Ahern managed to get away with doing as little as possible for a decade other than chasing votes. That native caution seemed to work well but hid cracks in the system that eventually led to a dam burst.
As the German economy faces familiar challenges to the Celtic Tiger (from soaring property prices to bad banks) Merkel's voters deserve more than Ahern was able to offer here.
(Additional reporting Reuters)