Tomorrow evening, Angela Merkel will appear alongside her Socialist rival, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in the televised debate that is now a set piece of so many elections (except our own). Germans like to call the encounter a television "duel", while predicting that this year's will be hardly worth tuning in for. One newspaper forecast that it would be "like the rehearsal for a New Year ski jump conducted during a heavy blizzard".
It is not just that Merkel and Steinmeier have been governing in coalition for the past four years, but that – two weeks before the vote – the Chancellor has a 20-plus points poll lead that makes her, and the centre-right alliance she leads, almost unassailable. Once she strides on to the stage in the purposeful manner that has become her trademark, it is hard to imagine her being other than word-perfect.
Yet this election is not completely settled. Having trundled along uneventfully for the best part of a month, the campaign suddenly caught alight this week after it emerged that a German officer had called down a US air raid in Afghanistan that killed dozens of civilians. That drew attention to the presence of German forces in Afghanistan and took Merkel to an emergency session of the Bundestag to regret the deaths but defend the mission.
In one way, Merkel is fortunate. It will be hard for the Socialists to make much capital out of her discomfort, because it was Gerhard Schröder's centre-left coalition that agreed to contribute troops to Nato's Afghan force. But this does not mean that Afghanistan presents no electoral threat. The smaller left-leaning parties, the Linke (left) and the Greens, lost no time in reiterating their calls for German troops to be brought home and could scupper Merkel's ambition to govern either alone, as the CDU-CSU alliance, or in a new coalition with the free-market FDP. But whatever the composition of the next Bundestag – and Germany's proportional system can turn up unexpected results at the margins – she looks set for another four years as Chancellor, even if as leader of another "grand coalition". Indeed, until the setback over Afghanistan, she had benefited from an almost diabolical run of good luck.
In her first two years in power, she presided over a fall in Germany's notoriously high unemployment, which probably owed much to the unpopular measures taken by her Socialist predecessor. In the global downturn, Germany was less contaminated than many OECD countries by the international banking crisis and dragged down more by its strength – its export-led economy – than its weakness.
Last month, as if on cue, the German economy started to grow again. Unemployment, which had been on the rise again, has dipped slightly. And earlier this week, Merkel was able to announce that Germany's preferred buyer for the Opel car company had done the deal. She called in the television cameras and gave the news in person. Her diary for the month before the election has also been a dream sequence of meetings and commemorations that show her in the most flattering light. From the plethora of 20th anniversaries preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the G20 economic summit in Pittsburgh, Merkel not only appears as Germany's leader, but also has a success story to tell. She will fly back from Pittsburgh just in time for her party's final campaign rally.
Even an anniversary that would have been highly sensitive to any German Chancellor, 70 years since the start of the Second World War, was less embarrassing for Merkel, as a former East German, than it would have been for a "Wessi" – East Germans having suffered with the eastern half of Europe the exigencies of Soviet domination. Sharing a platform with today's Polish and Russian leaders in Gdansk, Merkel was the complete personification of German unity and European reconciliation.
Nor is it only during her four years as Chancellor and during this campaign that Merkel has been an extraordinarily lucky politician. Good fortune has been her almost constant companion since she abandoned an academic career as a physicist in favour of politics. Since she made that decision at the age of 35 – 1989 was in every way her lucky year – she has uncannily tended to be in the right place at the right time.
Yet politicians, perhaps more than those in any other walk of life, also play a role in determining their own luck, and Merkel is no exception. She went into politics just in time to ride the crest of the unification wave, but not so early that she was confined to the perilous byways of dissidence. She was also quick to move out of the party structures that developed in East Germany into the West German parties that became the mainstream. And in choosing the centre-right CDU, rather than the left, she made a choice that marked her out – not least in the eyes of the then chancellor, Helmut Kohl. As a former East German and a woman, Merkel was a one-woman diversity statement whom he rapidly brought into government.
In 1999, she showed shrewd judgement, and a rare flash of opportunism, in openly criticising her erstwhile patron over the party funding scandal that helped to bring him down. A relatively junior politician, trained in Western ways of party loyalty, might not have spoken out as she did. But that propelled her a year later to the CDU leadership, to the resentful amazement of some who had not deemed her a rival. She had the grace – or the calculating instinct – not to press her candidacy in the 2002 election, leaving it to the Bavarian CSU leader, Edmund Stoiber, to carry the flag for the centre right. His defeat virtually assured her the candidacy when Schröder called an early election three years later.
Merkel has come a very long way from the house of Lutheran pastor Horst Kasner and his wife Herlind. Nothing in her childhood hinted at the career she would eventually follow. The Kasners, who had started married life in Hamburg before being allocated a parish in East Germany, had close relatives in the West and made occasional visits. For Merkel, and her younger brother and sister, eagerly awaited gifts – jeans, little luxuries and the like – yielded glimpses of the other world.
But Merkel displayed few signs of the restlessness that plagued some of her contemporaries, and she followed a conventional path from provincial school, to university in Leipzig, to a branch of the East German Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Her early marriage to a fellow student, Ulrich Merkel, faded quickly. After moving to Berlin, she set up home with the newly divorced Professor Joachim Sauer. They married, discreetly, in 1998, after party elders complained that a cohabiting party leader was inappropriate for a senior official of a party with Christian in its title.
Professor Sauer kept a low profile during his wife's ascent to prominence, and has remained in the background while she has been Chancellor. He was a genial host to leaders' wives when Germany hosted the G8 summit in 2007, but has otherwise preferred his quantum chemistry laboratory at Humboldt University to the limelight. He appears mostly when accompanying his wife to the opera, an enthusiasm, along with hill-walking, they share.
It is possible to discern in her prodigious appetite for work, her straight talking, her calm persistence and her evident dislike of show something of her Lutheran upbringing in the backwoods of East Germany. You could also trace her ability – initially much underestimated – to negotiate the compromises essential to running a coalition to the constant bargaining with the state required of private citizens in East Germany. She acknowledges that all these components belong in the mix. And these are qualities that suit Germans, East and West. They like the image of Germany she projects.
Today, Merkel appears different from the person who became Germany's first woman Chancellor four years ago. Even as she insists her inner Hausfrau remains – she still sews and bakes cakes – she has grown immeasurably in confidence and stature. The youthful, almost shy, woman who many believed would not last four months – let alone four years – at the helm of Europe's most populous country has grown into a leader who inspires respect far beyond Germany's borders.
If her compatriots have a complaint, it is that she remains, policy-wise, a bit of a mystery. How far has she been constrained over the past four years by her Socialist coalition partners? How much more to the right would she move if she could govern according to her own lights? But that complaint is muted. For German voters, what they know of her character is infinitely more important than what they don't know about her policies.
In 2005, Merkel's opponent and her own lacklustre campaign turned a forecast landslide into a near dead heat. For the Chancellor hungry for a second term, the priority for the next fortnight is to ensure there is no repeat.
A life in brief
Born: Hamburg, 17 July 1954, daughter of Horst and Herlind Kasner. One brother, one sister.
Early life: Grew up in Templin, 50 miles north of Berlin, before studying physics at the University of Leipzig.
Career: Researcher at the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry. Entered the Bundestag in 1990. Under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was Minister for Women and Youth in 1994. Later became Environment Minister. Secretary-General of her party in 1998; beat Gerhard Schröder to become Chancellor in 2005.
She says: "I may be Chancellor, but at home I still cook and I still sew."
They say: "The Chancellor's silence is no silence of lambs, but the silence of wolves." Socialist Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, on her non-campaigning.Reuse content