OPINION: Germany will have to endure Covid for a while longer, but at least Merkel is going
Both Angela Merkel and Covid have been around in Germany for seemingly forever. But at least change is on the horizon, even if we don't know what's coming next, writes Brian Melican in Hamburg.
It’s another typically grey Hamburg afternoon and I’m sitting at my desk eyeing up my postal vote for the upcoming Bundestagswahl. In recent years, I’ve often dropped my ballot off at the electoral services offices several weeks before polling day. After all, I was always pretty sure of who I wanted to vote for, if not necessarily always sure of precisely how to do that (anyone who thinks Erststimme/Zweitstimme (first and second vote) is complicated should give the five-vote system for the Hamburg local elections a try…). This time round, though, I’m hesitating.
It would appear that I’m not alone. As pollsters, pundits, and publicans (those much underestimated societal barometers) confirm, the mood in Germany this summer has been characterised by a strange blend of stasis and volatility. The stasis can be summed up in two words: Merkel and Corona. Both have been around seemingly forever – and it feels difficult to imagine either ever going away. The volatility comes from the complete uncertainty about what will come after them (and when “after” will be).
Let’s start with Merkel. She had been in office for little over six weeks when I first moved to Hamburg in early 2006. My entire life in Germany to date has taken place under a Merkel chancellorship, as has that of anyone currently turning 16 or younger. Through this feat alone, she has become beloved of many Germans, who of course like nothing more than weighty stability, both in their cars (Mercedes, BMW) and their Chancellors (think Kohl).
In fact, Germans are such suckers for stability that they voted Merkel even after her core campaign message became nothing more ambitious than “Sie kennen mich ja”. This translates as “Well, you know me”, but might be rendered facetiously as “Better the devil you know”.
It’s a paradox we’ve all come to know. Germans dislike almost everything about Merkel’s policies (or lack of them), but have proved unwilling to trust anyone else with the levers of power.
Literally everyone in Germany I know is deeply dissatisfied with something: people who vote for Merkel’s CDU often think they’re too soft on migrants and complain that they haven’t done enough to keep the Autobahn network in shape; people who don’t vote for the CDU are perplexed that it still refuses to recognise that Germany has always run on immigration and think the millions spent on re-tarmacking motorways might be put to better use on crumbling schools and understaffed hospitals.
If you detect some frustration in me personally here, you’re right: on most issues in public life, from immigration to public investment, the debate has barely moved on since I arrived. Ich kann es nicht mehr hören (I can't listen to it anymore). The fact that Merkel only really scraped back in in 2017, having lost eight percent vote share (no, most people don’t remember that bit, either), suggests that I may not be as alone as I sometimes feel here.
In any case, I for one am absolutely delighted that Merkel has chosen to release us from this 16-year-limbo.
I know the prospect of her retiring worries some people – not just in Germany, but elsewhere – because “compared to Trump, Johnson et al, she stands for a different style of doing politics”, as the argument goes. That’s certainly true, but declaring her to be the best leader a western democracy in the early twenty-first century could ever have by comparing her to populism’s most mendacious sociopaths betrays, in my view, a worrying lack of ambition. Compare her to a leader with plausible hair and a political programme – like Emmanuel Macron, for instance, or Sanna Marin – and she looks like a tired hack with very little to say for herself.
This spring, even the most dyed-in-the-wall Merkel apologists couldn’t overlook just how much damage an utter lack of convictions can wreak. After going in front of the cameras in March 2020 to do what a chancellor has to do (“It is serious; take it seriously”), Merkel retreated behind a webcam for the rest of the pandemic, sniping at the various state leaders when they didn’t agree with her on coronavirus restrictions and going borderline unconstitutional at several points along the way.
Germany stuck in a Merkel - and Covid rut
Which brings us on to the second cause of the odd feeling of stasis: Corona. Just like with Chancellors, Germans don’t like taking risks with illnesses, either. We have always been a nation of hypochondriacs, and in days gone by, this was advantageous: doctors take ailments seriously and routinely run diagnostics people in other countries have to fight tooth and nail (or be privately insured) for. Yet the virus has brought out the worst in us.
As a country, we are terrified of the virus to the point that we still put on masks to walk three feet to the toilet in a restaurant, but are equally scared of the 1-in-100,000 chance of getting ill with the available vaccines. It’s a bad case of: “Wasch mich, aber mach mich nicht naß!” (wash me but don't get me wet - similar to 'having your cake and eating it') Either way, Germany is doomed to suffer a bad autumn and winter in which we bear higher rates of illness than we would like with less freedom than we would want.
Nothing, however – not Merkel, not Corona – lasts forever, even though Germans love nothing more than a protracted status quo.
But there you go: that’s the Germany I fell in love with enough to become German back in 2015 (yes, before it was cool/necessary for Brits to do so). And because of that, I at least get to register my discontent at the ballot box in just a couple of weeks’ time. Habitually, I vote Green; in locals, I’ve even gone as far as Die Linke (voting SPD in Hamburg is just like voting CDU). Yet something tells me we might need the FDP in government this time round before they start making us check into our own flats with the cursed LUCA app. Then again, I dislike much of their manifesto and personnel … Tough one.
So I resort to the Wahl-o-mat. As it turns out, I should be voting for DIE PARTEI. Now, that seems to be taking my instinct to break out of endless Grand Coalitions a little too far. Even back in the UK, I never voted Monster Raving Loony. What is more: the less clear the result, the longer Merkel will have to stay on as caretaker until a government is formed. And so my hesitation continues.