“Merkel takes all of the energy out by bear-hugging her opponents and absorbing their issues,” said Andreas Kraemer, the director of the Ecologic Institute in Berlin. “It makes politics boring so as to reduce voter turnout and increase support for the incumbent.”
Her win also reflects Germans’ desire for continuity at a time when the country’s unemployment rate—5.3 percent—is the lowest it has been since reunification. Some attribute the healthy domestic picture to the chancellor’s seemingly non-ideological decision making, something her opponent decried as “sticking her finger in the air to see which way the wind blows” during a pre-election rally.
Even events abroad have sparked about-faces for the chancellor: Her biggest recent policy—to abandon nuclear power in 10 years—was prompted by the Fukushima meltdown in Japan.
“Merkel always seems to be saying, ‘on the one hand, on the other hand...’ She can convince you that she’s doing what she thinks is best,” said one young Berliner who voted for the opposition Social Democrats. “It’s a bit how I think about decisions also.”
Meanwhile, Merkel’s opponent, the Social Democrats’ Peer Steinbruck, came off as a loose cannon, proving too gaffe-prone (he once complained that chancellors’ $300,000 salaries are too low) and vulgar (he appeared on the cover of German magazine Süddeutsche Zeitung flipping the bird at his critics.)
This is in stark contrast to the steady hand of Merkel, whom Germans call “Mutti” (mother) with admiration. The fact that she’s the first chancellor from the former GDR has made her seem like an “East German Obama,” as one Social Democratic campaign strategist put it, and women tend to appreciate her even if they reject her right-leaning politics.
“I personally like that she’s nice and relaxed and determined, but I didn’t vote for her,” said one voter in Berlin. “Maybe I’m just happy to see a woman there.”
In Germany’s complex parliamentary system, the winning party—in this case Merkel’s CDU—must either gain a majority of seats in the Bundestag or govern with a smaller coalition partner. Merkel’s former coalition partner, the libertarian-like FDP, lost big on Sunday and seemed like they might not even get enough votes to return to parliament, which means Merkel would likely form a coalition with her rivals, the left-leaning Social Democrats, or SPD. However, that coalition could take weeks to hammer out since the SPD have so far said they’d refuse to govern with the CDU.
Some experts believe a “grand coalition” with the SPD would force Merkel and the CDU to be friendlier toward Southern Europe on bailouts, as the SPD favors both a more generous stimulus for struggling economies and stronger European integration.
The country’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, recently signaled that a third bailout for Greece will be necessary, but Germans are wary of “throwing more money at the situation,” as one voter put it to me, with no strings attached. Germany went through its own, tough social reforms 10 years ago, and its people now live with a comparatively less generous welfare state than other Europeans.