After Angela Merkel was splattered with a ripe tomato hurled by a protester at a recent campaign rally, the German chancellor stayed as cool as a cucumber.
Unflappable even in the face of rising resentment over her decision to allow more than a million refugees into Germany two years ago, Merkel brushed off the tomato at the rally in Heidelberg and finished the speech in her stained blazer without saying a word about it.
The episode may help explain why so many Germans respect and appreciate Merkel, even if they do not necessarily like her. Polls indicate she is expected to win a fourth four-year term as chancellor in Sunday's general election.
Though the imperturbable 63-year-old physicist rubbed many in the country of about 82 million people the wrong way with her refugee policies, voters in Europe’s biggest economy know her and trust her, according to pollsters and analysts.
“Germans like stability and predictability,” said Jackson Janes, a political scientist and president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “That’s why ‘no-drama-Angela’ fits the mood. With turbulence all around, including [President] Trump’s tirades in tweets, Germans see her as a good crisis manager.”
Merkel, meanwhile, embraces her reputation for staying cool when dealing with fellow leaders such as Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I’d say I’m able stay calm in tight spots, and that serenity is an important strength to have,” Merkel said in response to a question at a discussion with voters in Stuttgart a few hours after the incident in Heidelberg. “These meetings aren’t about making new friends. If friendships emerge, that’s great. But it’s about representing the interests of your country and it’s important to make your values known.”
In power since 2005, Merkel has guided Germany through a number of difficulties including the global financial crisis in 2008 that crippled growth in the country, the euro zone debt crisis that threatened chaos for the 28-nation European Union, and the refugee crisis that opened up rifts across Germany and the EU. As an influential leader in Europe, she faces economic and diplomatic challenges stemming from Britain’s plans to exit the EU, known as Brexit.
Merkel almost never leads the way in the global arena with bold measures or spectacular new plans. But there are exceptions, such as with her refugees position, and she tends to stand firm once she makes a decision.
“Unlike a lot of other world leaders who feel the need to immediately jump on every headline, Merkel goes quiet whenever there’s a crisis and waits as long as it takes to detect which direction public opinion is leaning,” said Julius van de Laar, an international political strategist in Berlin. “It’s almost like she’s out there surfing on a wave and waiting to see the direction it breaks.”
Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union party, or CDU, has slipped slightly in recent opinion polls but is projected to win 36% of the vote Sunday and emerge as the dominant party in a new and larger Parliament filled with six parties.
The center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD, led by candidate Martin Schulz, is well behind with about 23% of the projected vote, even though it briefly pulled ahead of Merkel’s party early this year.
The Social Democrats unexpectedly lost three state elections in the spring to Merkel’s conservatives and gave up all the campaign momentum they had garnered when Schulz was nominated in January.
The SPD was surprised and unprepared to suddenly lead the Christian Democratic Union party in polls and failed to capitalize on the burst of support for Schulz, analysts said. He largely stayed on the sidelines during the three state elections, whereas Merkel campaigned hard for her party in all three states that served as important test runs for the general election.
In addition, the country’s economy has grown strongly during Merkel’s 12 years in power while unemployment has fallen steadily and is at 5.7%. The federal government has been running a budget surplus of up to $25 billion a year for the last three years.
“Merkel’s position isn’t as strong as it was in the previous elections, but she has a broad base of support,” said Van de Laar. “The booming economy and low unemployment is a partial explanation. But she has also hardly faced any challenge from the SPD.”
If she wins reelection, Merkel will nevertheless need a coalition partner to govern the country and that will be the biggest uncertainty Sunday.
She could pick the SPD for another “grand coalition” similar to the right-center alliance that ruled since 2013 or opt for a new government with one or two smaller parties on the ballot — such as the pro-ecology Greens or pro-business Free Democrats, which are each polling just under 10%. The far-left Linke party is also polling around 10%.
Merkel and all other parties in Parliament have already ruled out any alliance with the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, which has campaigned unabashedly against the refugees from Syria and other trouble spots flooding into Germany. The AfD is expected to win seats in the Reichstag for the first time, with perhaps 10% of the vote or more.
Pollsters believe the AfD, which was formed in 2013 as an anti-euro party and fell short of the 5% threshold for inclusion in Parliament in the September 2013 election, could win more than 10% this time. Many of its supporters, who intensely dislike Merkel and her pro-refugee policies, may be concealing their true voting intentions in voter surveys, pollsters say.
“The refugee issue isn’t the red-hot topic it was a year ago,” said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University, noting the numbers of applications for asylum and media attention on refugees have diminished sharply this year. “Support for Merkel still runs high across the country, but the difference this time is that there is a considerable minority of perhaps 15% that viscerally opposes her.”
That animosity can be seen especially at rallies in the formerly communist east, where sizable numbers of unruly hecklers have tried to disrupt her campaign rallies with nonstop whistling and jeers lasting the duration of her 40-minute stump speeches. But it’s also been visible in some affluent western towns such as Heidelberg, where she was hit by the tomato.
“She’s bounced back from the uproar over the immigrant wave because there hasn’t been another wave yet and she addressed the border control issues more directly,” said Janes. “Her biggest challenge ahead is going to be holding Europe together while negotiating Brexit.”
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.