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The Merkel enigma

Gavin Hewitt | 11:43 UK time, Monday, 28 September 2009

merkel595.jpgIt is strange in the aftermath of a campaign, when a candidate has been examined and dissected, that the basic questions are still being asked on the day after. But with victory secure and with a new coalition partner it is being debated in Germany: "Which Merkel will run the country?"

Even though she made the election about herself, about her ability to manage a crisis, she retains a mask. One of the papers here in Germany probed the Merkel mystery and concluded that it is difficult to define her - and that that is the secret to her success.

Back in 2005, she supported radical reforms but then backed away from implementing them as chancellor. At times she positioned herself above the political rough-house. She was the leader who sought compromise, whose basic instinct was caution. She was a centre-right politician who shored up public service pensions, who subsidised short-term working to keep thousands in jobs.

Some in her own party became suspicious and believed she had shed her party skin and had deliberately set herself up as the "mother of the nation". Indeed one of her closest aides told me that within the Chancellery they referred to her as "mummy" - although not to her face.

She was, of course, inhibited by her coalition with the Social Democrats, her natural opponents. Now she is to be wedded to the Free Democrats. They believe in lower taxes, a smaller state with less regulation, where it is easier for companies to hire and fire. At one time they would have been her ideological allies.

So will a more radical Merkel emerge? Probably not. Firstly, although she and the Free Democrats want tax cuts they are hemmed in by the spiralling budget deficit. Secondly, she wants to move away from fiscal stimuli as soon as possible, but she'll want to be certain growth is bedded down before risking strangling the recovery at birth. So her natural ally, caution, may prevent her in the short-term being a more radical chancellor.

She is likely to find the political climate harsher despite her victory. Old politics has returned in a left-right divide. The weakened Social Democrats, without the shackles of coalition, will feel free to attack her. Other leftist parties and some of their union allies will be on guard against any weakening of the safety nets that cushion German workers.

But she has time. The truth is that in the midst of Germany's worst recession since the war, with the greed and excesses of capitalism laid bare, the centre-left made little headway. Cleverly Angela Merkel led the demand, at the recent G20 meeting, for bonuses to be capped. She insisted that the international community could not return to where we were before recession struck. International finance needed closer regulation, she demanded. It was clever politics. She stole the left's clothes. It left them without a script. They have not managed to convince voters that they are better placed to lead the country out of recession and to bring down unemployment, which continues to rise.

So, I suspect Germany will tack to the right but Angela Merkel will remain a pragmatic politician who shies away from confrontation but will fight fiercely for German interests as she has done over the car industry.

Internationally she and her new allies are Atlanticists who will remain close to Washington. Her former coalition partners - the Social Democrats - wanted to set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. A newly-elected Angela Merkel will hold the line in support of the 4,200 German troops in Afghanistan while the mood across Europe is souring on the Afghan mission.

After yesterday, Angela Merkel is in a position to re-assert Germany's leading role in Europe.


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