‘Crisis chancellor’ Merkel turns her steady hand to coronavirus

By Andrew McCathie, dpa

Angela Merkel remains improbably popular with the German electorate, not least for her handling of a raft of global crises during her 14 years in power. As the Merkel era draws to a close, her political legacy as crisis chancellor seems secured.

German chancellors are often linked to particular periods in the nation’s history.

For Ludwig Erhard it was Germany’s post-World War II economic miracle, for Willy Brandt it was normalizing ties with Eastern Europe. Helmut Kohl was the chancellor of German unity, whereas Gerhard Schoeder was the chancellor of reform.

This is the era of Angela Merkel, the crisis chancellor.

Over 14 years in power, she has steered Europe’s biggest economy through one crisis after another: the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the 2008 financial crash and resulting eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, the diesel scandal, and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

And that’s not to mention the 2016 double upsets of Britain’s shock Brexit vote and the election of US President Donald Trump, a leader apparently determined to unravel the post-war international order.

But it is in the last global health crisis that Merkel arguably faces her biggest challenge to date.

To stem the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus, which has already claimed more than 2,200 lives in Germany, the country has shut down large swathes of its economy and brought public life to a near-standstill.

Germans look to Merkel for her “experience of past crises,” said Peter Matuschek from Berlin-based polling institute Forsa. For him, Merkel will go down in history as “the crisis chancellor.”

Merkel raised hopes on Thursday that her government could start to loosen restrictions on public and economic life after Easter without risking a second spike in viral infections.

She told parliamentary members of her conservative bloc there was a “glimmer of hope” in fighting the pandemic.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their CSU sister party are emerging as one of the clear political winnners of the pandemic, with a recent Forsa poll putting the bloc’s approval rating at 37 per cent, up from 28 per cent at the start of the year.

And Merkel’s personal popularity has fared just as well. A full 80 per cent of voters polled by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for broadcaster ZDF said they were pleased with Merkel’s management of the crisis.

In another poll conducted by infratest dimap for broadcaster ARD, 93 per cent of those surveyed backed the draconian measures imposed by her government to contain the virus.

Merkel remains Germany’s most popular politician, with approval ratings most leaders only dream of after so long at the helm of government.

But then crises have always boosted Merkel’s political standing. Her handling of the euro debt crisis, which at one point threatened to break up the Eurozone, was partly behind the CDU/CSU union’s record showing at the 2013 election, where the bloc came close to winning a historic outright majority.

In 2011, the cataclysmic Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan prompted the ever-pragmatic Merkel to follow the public mood and mount a major U-turn, dropping her support for nuclear power and shifting the nation towards alternative sources of energy.

Six years later, she was forced to make one of the most controversial decisions of her chancellorship when she moved to avert a humanitarian disaster in Hungary and allowed one million migrants to enter Germany.

At the same time, just as Europe was limping away from the euro debt crisis, Merkel faced a major threat to Germany’s vital automotive sector when it emerged Volkswagen had been cheating on environmental emission tests on a huge scale.

And though her conservatives faced a political backlash in the 2017 election for her open-door policy towards refugees, Matuschek points out that Merkel herself retained her high approval ratings throughout.

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