Merkel Dominating German Coalition Talks Attains Peak of Power

Armed with three election victories culminating in the most emphatic win of her generation, Chancellor Angela Merkel is more than ever the conductor of German politics.

The woman who once did experiments closeted in an East German physics lab is taking charge behind closed doors and without public fanfare as she builds her next government. She’s asserting direct control over the most unwieldy coalition talks yet, summoning the heads of her party’s negotiating groups in Berlin today for a procession of detailed progress reports.

“Angela Merkel is at the peak of her power,” Ulrich Sarcinelli, a political scientist at the University of Koblenz-Landau, said by phone.

Merkel’s top-to-bottom involvement signals that she’s aware of the risks in her presidential style, including a grass-roots vote by Social Democratic Party members in December on whether to become her junior coalition partner. A no-vote would threaten Merkel’s third-term blueprint, even after she led her Christian Democratic bloc on Sept. 22 to the biggest victory in a German national election since 1990.

Meeting the party lawmakers dealing with policies ranging from road tolls and finances to energy is an effort by Merkel to keep coalition talks on track and have her third-term agenda in place by mid-December, according to three aides familiar with the talks. All spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings aren’t public.

Relishing Detail

As during Europe’s debt crisis, Merkel is trying to turn caution into a virtue. She relishes delving into the detail of the coalition talks and won’t just have token conversations with her negotiators, one of Merkel’s aides said. She will meet individually probably with eight working-group heads for about an hour each, another aide said.

Her control extends to small points of public image. When Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union celebrated the election result on stage at party headquarters, someone handed CDU General Secretary Hermann Groehe a red-black-and-gold German flag to wave. Merkel, whose austerity policy during the debt crisis set off anti-German protests in southern Europe, took it away and handed it to an aide off-stage.

Even so, Merkel’s re-election, her popularity in Germany and her eight years in office make her Europe’s most powerful woman, while the response to Europe’s financial woes thrust the chancellery in Berlin to center-stage.

Berlin Wall

In the almost 24 years since the Berlin Wall fell, Merkel, 59, has risen from then Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s protegee -- he called her “the Girl” -- to take over as CDU head in 2000 and win the chancellorship in 2005. Along the way, she stashed away experience that helps her manage coalition talks, a skill she has honed in assembling both previous administrations.

One lesson from her second-term government with the Free Democratic Party is to resist any rush to make a deal. That coalition’s contract was completed in 31 days in 2009, less than half the 65 days in 2005, and Merkel now regrets that disputes were papered over in the interest of speed, said one of the aides, who was also involved in those talks.

Now Merkel is bringing together the two biggest parties, the same “grand coalition” she led between 2005 and 2009. The steering committee hashing out budget priorities and cabinet posts consists of 75 politicians from the SPD, the CDU and its Bavarian CSU affiliate, more than twice as many as in 2005.

‘Less Unwieldy’

“Everything was much less unwieldy in 2005,” Kajo Wasserhoevel, a former SPD official who managed the party’s election campaign that year, said in an interview. Merkel “orchestrated” those coalition talks with her “quiet, persistent matter-of-fact way.”

Whereas Merkel defeated the SPD by a single percentage point in 2005, this time her bloc took 41.5 percent to the SPD’s 25.7 percent after a campaign centered on the chancellor and her record. That result must be reflected in the final coalition contract, one of the people familiar with her strategy said.

Including a larger number of Social Democrats increases the party’s stake in the success of the talks, the Merkel aide said. SPD negotiators include Hannelore Kraft, the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, who hinted that her party might be better off in opposition after failing to unseat Merkel for the second election in a row.

Misgivings by SPD grandees such as Kraft led party head Sigmar Gabriel to put the prospective coalition deal to a membership vote, tentatively set for early December. Gabriel has said the government’s agenda must reflect core SPD demands such as a national minimum wage to allow party leaders to lobby the rank-and-file for approval.

Merkel doesn’t hide her love of detail, saying she likes to read files. Other character traits help, including her restraint on the campaign trail in attacking parties and politicians she might need as allies later.

“I don’t recall Merkel ever putting someone down,” Klaus von Dohnanyi, a Social Democrat and former mayor of Hamburg who knows Merkel personally, said in an interview with GQ magazine in 2012. “Merkel’s defining trait is modesty.”