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Angela Merkel, Germany’s ‘Mommy,’ expected to win third term

People run by a giant election billboard in Berlin featuring German Chancellor Angela Merkel's famous diamond-shaped hands pose. German voters go to polls Sunday for the general election.
(Johannes Eisele / AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN – Her necklace made more of a statement during a televised debate than she did, with beads the colors of the German flag. Even her supporters admit she’s no soaring orator. A giant campaign billboard features a close-up of her hands, not her face.

But the owner of that patriotic jewelry and those hands with their fingertips pressed together looks poised to renew her claim as the world’s most powerful woman.

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Germans go to the polls Sunday, and almost all indications are that Chancellor Angela Merkel will emerge with a third term as leader of Europe’s most populous nation and its biggest economy.

Which party she’ll have to govern with in the coalition remains a toss-up. But Merkel, 59, is almost certain to extend her streak as one of the longest-serving leaders currently in the West. Another term would boost her time in office to 12 years and introduce her to her third sitting U.S. president.

The country she heads is prosperous, comfortable and generally approving of her low-key, cautious style. She routinely polls as Germany’s most popular politician, credited with steering the nation safely through the choppy waters of the euro debt crisis. Where southern European economies are floundering, Germany’s mighty export machine continues to churn.

Her opponents say she lacks vision, but Merkel confounds them with her talent for making anodyne statements of little substance that somehow succeed in soothing her compatriots, who have nicknamed her “Mutti” – “Mommy.” (She has no children of her own.)

“I’m not saying in a Freudian way that Germans have a mother complex, but she does seem to put a lot of people at ease, and the record seems to justify that trust,” said Joerg Forbrig, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “She projects the sort of feeling, shared by most, that we’re doing rather well.”

Her calm, unruffled air has lulled voters into complacency, critics say, and turned this election into one of the dullest in recent memory, even though the outcome has serious implications far beyond Germany’s borders.

Europe’s debt crisis is quiet for now, but could flare up at any moment, triggered by political instability in Italy or by Greece’s ongoing problems. Economists urge Germany, the continent’s undisputed leader, to take bold steps to fix the situation – writing down more Greek debt, agreeing with Eurozone partners to jointly issued government bonds, signing up to radical banking reforms – but Merkel has clung to an incremental, at times ponderous, approach.

Here at home, a steep rise in energy prices has begun to worry German industry. Workers complain that wages have flattened and social inequality has increased, in spite of a low unemployment rate that inspires envy in this nation’s neighbors.

Yet the election has sparked little national discussion of the big issues. Instead, voters have been distracted by such sideshows as a widely derided proposal by the Green Party for public cafeterias to go meatless one day a week and a magazine cover showing Merkel’s main rival, Peer Steinbrueck, flipping the bird (he approved the photo).

Merkel’s party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, has built its campaign almost entirely around her, relying on personality rather than policy. The enormous billboard here in the German capital showing nothing but Merkel’s hands – joined together in a diamond shape, her trademark pose – is meant to assure voters that their future is safe in her care.

“At the moment, the ‘mother of the country’ [image] works OK,” said Martin Lodge, an expert on German politics at the London School of Economics. “But if Germany goes downhill in the next few years, she will quickly lose support.”

Polls consistently show the CDU leading the pack heading into Sunday’s election, well in front of Steinbrueck’s Social Democrats but without enough support to land a majority in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament. That means Merkel would have to find coalition partners, as is the norm in German politics; she currently governs with the conservative Free Democrats.

It remains possible that a collection of left-leaning parties could come out on top at the ballot box and band together to snatch away Merkel’s keys to the chancellery. But analysts think that unlikely.

More probable, if the Free Democrats perform as badly as polls suggest they might, is a “grand coalition” like the one Merkel presided over in her first term, a marriage of convenience between the CDU and the Social Democrats. Steinbrueck himself served as Merkel’s finance minister then, but he has ruled out his, if not his party’s, participation in a repeat of that configuration.

Although many Germans appreciate Steinbrueck’s reputation as a straight shooter, his policy proposals – a national minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich – have failed to catch fire. More publicized have been his gaffes, including his statement that he would never pay less than $6.50 for a bottle of Pinot Grigio wine.

He has also had little success blasting Merkel for her response to the euro crisis, since his party voted in favor of every measure that she brought before the Bundestag to deal with it, including funding bailouts for Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Steinbrueck, 66, and Merkel have generally avoided personal attacks during the campaign.

“They are treating each other with a lot of caution because they know they may have to work with each other,” said Forbrig, the German Marshall Fund analyst. “There seemed to be a lot of reluctance to go that last step of attacking because they may need each other.”

Most Germans, aware of their country’s disastrous experience with charismatic leaders, have responded positively to Merkel’s unpretentious, pragmatic, risk-averse style. During her one and only debate with Steinbrueck, at which her necklace stole the show and spawned its own Twitter account, she modestly and somewhat paradoxically described her government’s achievements as “relatively sensational.”

Her penchant for breaking down big problems into smaller, solvable parts is a holdover from her previous career as a scientist. She’s also not above some opportunistic poaching of her opponents’ policies to cater to popular opinion, such as her abrupt decision two years ago to shut down Germany’s nuclear power plants after she had previously vowed to keep them running.

Whether a third term would embolden her to broadcast a wider vision for Germany and Europe, or to push her country into the front ranks on the global diplomatic stage as she looks ahead to her legacy as Germany’s first-ever female leader, is unclear. Some Germans hope it will.

“She seems to be responding to developments rather than shaping developments,” Forbrig said. “She is the most powerful woman on Earth, and she leads one of the largest industrial countries in the world. There’s a need for German leadership.”

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Twitter: @HenryHChu

henry.chu@latimes.com


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