Sunday 22nd November 2020
From Sebastian Huld
Fifteen years ago today, the German Bundestag elected Angela Merkel as Chancellor. Nobody had suspected then that this day would mark the beginning of a long era. Because the image of most of the newcomers in the Chancellery was very different from today.
2021 will not just be a super election year and – hopefully – the beginning of the end of the pandemic. It is also likely to be the last year of the Angela Merkel era. So the beginning of a foreseeable debate about how the long reign of the first woman in the Federal Chancellery should now be assessed. One can assume that for all legitimate criticisms, the report will be somewhere between good and very good. The past 15 years have been characterized by severe political, ecological – including the corona pandemic – and economic crises, as well as profound changes in all digitized areas of life. In terms of all the challenges, Germany is doing well compared to other western industrial nations.
To deny the head of government of the Federal Republic that she has a substantial part in it would be unfair. But honesty also means that nobody saw this success coming. Just like the longest or second longest chancellorship since Konrad Adenauer – depending on when the next government was formed. It started in a far too unspectacular manner, 15 years ago today.
Work started that evening
On November 22, 2005, the CDU chairwoman and top candidate of the Union for the 2005 Bundestag election was elected Chancellor by the Bundestag. The then President of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, teased: “I have the well-founded impression that you intend to accept the election, but that too has to be formally established for the sake of order. I can ask you whether you will accept the election.” Merkel accepted and swore her oath of office on the Bible. She toasted with her parents, brother, and math teacher. That evening, Merkel gathered her cabinet around her for the first time.
The Deutschlandfunk commented, a new simplicity is finding its way into the government. An assessment that, unlike most of the past, has aged well. There was no howl of triumph, no macho gestures as with the prematurely retired predecessor Gerhard Schröder. There were several reasons for the fact that the big union party on the occasion of the longed-for return to power did not take place outside the Chancellery either.
A poor start with many Merkel opponents
First, the Union was deeply disappointed with the election result. Merkel had fared much worse than expected with her economically liberal reform agenda and weak popularity ratings. Or rather, a combative Schröder had given the Agenda-shaken SPD no longer thought possible approval values.
Second, Merkel, who was 51 at the time, was not only the first woman to head government, but also Protestant, East German and childless. Large parts of their own party were skeptical of it. The association of ambitious men around Roland Koch, Christian Wulff, Günther Oettinger, Friedrich Merz and others even considered Merkel’s election to be a political accident. Hardly anyone knew about Merkel’s qualities that her opponents also praise today: her objectivity, her vanity, her reliability and her fine sense of humor. Merkel was seen as a woman without special qualities, as brittle and – in the tried and tested manner of belittling women – as “Kohl’s girl”.
Thirdly, Merkel’s coalition partner entered into the government alliance with the Union without any enthusiasm: the grand coalition was a historic exception until 2005 and a democratic crutch because of the consequent very weak opposition. So it was no surprise that of the 448 votes in the Bundestag Groko, 51 voted against Merkel. Most of them were probably frustrated Social Democrats, but also Christian Democrats with resentment against the woman who overthrew Helmut Kohl over the donation affair and dumped Wolfgang Schäuble.
Continuity in an era of upheaval
The term Groko only celebrated its breakthrough in 2013, Thanks to Twitter. By the way, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer from Merkel’s first cabinet is the only one who still co-governs the country at Merkel’s side. Other ministers who were still politically active at the time: Wolfgang Schäuble, Ulla Schmidt, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Ursula von der Leyen and Olaf Scholz, who joined the cabinet in 2007. The Merkel years are a time of political continuity – for better and for worse – in an era of fundamental change.
Fifteen years ago there was no real celebration anywhere in the republic. FDP leader Guido Westerwelle etched that the weak election result in the Bundestag shows the fragility of the new coalition. Nobody could see that this day marked the beginning of twelve years of Groko and 16 years of Merkel as the world leader in Europe. And if Merkel had suspected something like that, she would have done the same all the more: to get to work.