Germany: Where Leadership Is On Trial

Angela Merkel’s refugee policy is proving deeply unpopular. Will she forge ahead anyway?

Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently poised to answer one of the most intriguing open questions in modern political science: Can politicians actually “lead” without being punished for it? Moments Hollywood loves—where chief executives take unpopular positions for the greater good and convince the public through rhetoric alone to support them—are vanishingly rare.

But Merkel, once considered the ultimate careful and calculating politico, has twice tested traditional political bounds: first during the euro zone’s economic crisis, leading the European response and pushing for controversial and painful bailouts for multiple countries, most famously Greece; and now with the refugee crisis, welcoming to Germany roughly 1 million asylum-seekers from conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere in 2015 alone. The consequences of this latter decision are not yet clear: Merkel’s open-door approach has been criticized by members of her own Christian Democratic Union party and its sister party; her poll numbers, and those of her party, are dropping; and the New Year’s Eve attacks in the German city of Cologne, in which immigrants were accused of mass robberies and sexual assaults against local women, will likely continue to erode support for the government’s asylum policies.

However Merkel’s refugee gambit plays out, what’s perhaps most astonishing is that she attempted it in the first place.

In August 2015, a poll published by the public-broadcasting consortium ARD showed that 34 percent of respondents thought the number of refugees being admitted by Germany at the time was about right, with 38 percent favoring allowing in fewer refugees. Only 23 percent of the German public felt the country should be taking in more refugees. In this context, Merkel’s decision first to invite in thousands of migrants stranded in Hungary in early September, and then to maintain in subsequent months a relatively liberal policy toward the continuing influx, seemed like a giant political risk.

Politicians getting so far out ahead of public opinion is “pretty unusual,” said Barry Burden, a political-science professor and the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “When we see examples of true leadership it’s usually on topics that matter only to a segment of the population, or that have a technical element that makes [the issue] difficult for most of the public to understand.”

In U.S. politics, “the mythology is that a president who’s a good communicator can go on the campaign trail and convince the public to come along with him,” Burden noted. “But when the political scientists have looked at the evidence over the years, even when it’s Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or someone we think of as an exceptional communicator, they were not especially effective.” The closest recent American analogue to Merkel’s move, he said, might be George W. Bush’s campaign to privatize Social Security when he was running for president in 2000. “As he gave more speeches the public became less supportive, not more supportive,” Burden said, and Bush ultimately retreated from the position—but not without consequence: “Republicans have paid a price among senior citizens to some degree.”

One potential explanation for Merkel’s boldness is that the German political system offers more shelter from public opinion than some others, particularly the American one, according to David Art, a political-science professor at Tufts University who focuses on comparative politics. In Germany’s “plodding” parliamentary democracy, political parties stand between the public and politicians. They choose which politicians to place on the ballot rather than relying on primary elections as in the United States. “Germany did not want to have, after Hitler, any sort of [personality-driven political] system,” Art said.

“On top of all that it’s a four- or five-party system where the normal state of affairs is going to be a coalition government,” he continued. “Even if public opinion is solidly against the refugee crisis, a party like the Greens may want to talk a lot about refugees because it’s important to their voter base, the 10 or 12 percent of the population that they can hope to mobilize in a national election.”

Merkel also has certain political dynamics on her side. In formulating her refugee policies, she may have counted on, and may yet receive, more leeway as “a politician of the right” than a leftist might have, said Art. Additionally, “the right to asylum is an important feature of Germany’s basic law, the Grundgesetz, and that’s a direct relation to the Nazi past.”

Plus, there’s substantial precedent for a chancellor advancing a policy viewed as unpopular but necessary. “The history of the Republic of Germany is full of moments where chancellors decided against the will of the population,” according to Thomas Petersen, a research manager at the Allensbach Institute, a public-opinion organization based in Baden-Württemberg. “The first one was in the 1950s—the decision of the Adenauer government to build up a new German army less than 10 years after World War II and with the population, especially the widows and mothers of the killed soldiers, furiously against it,” he said. Then, “in the early 1980s, the [Helmut] Schmidt government and then later [his successor from an opposing party Helmut] Kohl decided to agree with the [deployment in West Germany of] new NATO nuclear rockets to counter the new Soviet rockets. Again, that was something the German population was heavily against and that’s the real reason why the Schmidt government ended.”

Merkel’s stance on refugees has provoked a rebellion within her own party. But unlike some of her predecessors, the chancellor may just have the political skills to make good on her gamble. “All the 10 years she’s been in office, she was most of the time very popular, much more popular than most of the other chancellors we’ve had before,” said Petersen. “There is something in her personality that makes people believe that Germany is in good hands with her. … They don’t like her very much, they don’t love her. There is no obvious charisma, but at the same time people have the impression that she’s responsible, she’s intelligent, she rules the country more or less in a way that you can trust her. And that’s a very strong position.”

As many experts point out, Merkel is an exceptionally good interpreter of public opinion, in a nation where public opinion is not always easy to interpret. That’s part of why, up until this point, she has been stereotyped as cautious—a follower of public opinion rather than a leader.

“She sees earlier and better than other people which opinions can be defended and which can’t,” said Petersen, pointing to her quick reversal on nuclear-energy development in 2011 after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, despite her previous championing of the energy source: “She knew that from the Fukushima accident on, given the German social psychology, nuclear energy was dead in Germany.” Since Merkel has held firm on her refugee policy despite rebukes from the public and fellow politicians, he reasoned, “she may sense people will accept what she’s doing even though they don’t like it.”

Nor is this the first crisis Merkel has weathered. “Even though this second challenge may seem politically more explosive, the [euro crisis and bailout saga] was much, much greater in terms of magnitude and the effect on the European project and the global economy,” said Art.

Polling data appears to back up this view. While media coverage in the past few months has highlighted Merkel’s flagging approval ratings—in ARD polls in November and December, only 49 and 54 percent of respondents, respectively, described themselves as “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with Merkel’s performance—the dire headlines overlook the fact that Merkel has bounced back from worse. From June to December 2010, her approval numbers never broke 50 percent and reached their low point in August, when only 41 percent of Germans were very satisfied or satisfied with the chancellor. “She got punished in a lot of state elections in 2010 for her bailout of the Greeks,” said Art. But she recovered: Three years later, in 2013, Merkel’s CDU party enjoyed its best election results in over a decade, sweeping Merkel to a third stint as chancellor.

Angela Merkel’s Approval Ratings Over Time

This graph records the percent of respondents who said they were “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with Angela Merkel. The data is from ARD; information for September 2007, October 2009, and November 2009 is unavailable.

There’s still some time until Germany’s next federal election in 2017—and Merkel may not run in it. But her ability to rebound politically may depend, counterintuitively to poll-followers, more on events in Brussels than the highly publicized ones in Cologne. “German society won’t fail with a million immigrants. But of course it would fail if we had another million this year and another next year,” said Petersen. “Merkel needs success in the European negotiations about how to split the immigrants to different countries. If they find a way to organize immigration ... then she won’t have to pay a price” in Germany, he predicted.

In other words, she’s confronting much the same situation that she faced during the euro crisis. And when it comes to wrangling European heads of state, Merkel has a pretty good track record.