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The woman who could win when Angela Merkel can’t

Ursula von der Leyen could be the future of Germany’s centre-right

8 October 2016

9:00 AM

8 October 2016

9:00 AM

A year from now, 60 million Germans go to the polls in the most important general election in mainland Europe for a generation. The result will define German — and European — politics for the next four years. There are huge questions to be resolved, from the refugee crisis to the financial crisis, but right now the question in Germany is: will Mutti run again?

Angela Merkel’s nickname, Mutti (Mummy) is a memento of happier times. A year ago, her position as matriarch of the Bundesrepublik seemed unassailable. And then, last September, she opened Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of fleeing Syrians. Over a million refugees arrived last year. The reaction of native Germans could be measured at the polling booths. In last month’s regional elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Merkel’s constituency, her Christian Democratic Union came third. In local elections in Berlin, a fortnight later, the CDU polled just 17.5 per cent, its worst result in the capital since the war. No wonder Der Spiegel (Germany’s leading news magazine, and one of her most loyal supporters) is now suggesting it may be time for Mutti to leave the stage.

The Deutsche Bank crisis looks like another nail in Merkel’s electoral coffin. For ordinary Germans, Germany’s biggest bank has been a symbol of economic security. Still haunted by the spectre of hyperinflation, security is the one thing Germans value above all else. The decline of Deutsche Bank’s share price (from €30 last year to around €10 today) is bound to give voters the jitters, adding to the impression — already fostered by the refugee crisis — that Merkel is no longer the master of events. And so, for the CDU, a question that seemed academic a year ago has become much more pressing: can Merkel still win the next election? And if not, should she be persuaded to make way for a candidate who can?

The woman who’s setting the agenda in German politics right now is young enough to be Merkel’s daughter. Like Chancellor Merkel, Frauke Petry was raised in East Germany and trained as a scientist, but any resemblance between them ends there. Merkel was in her mid-thirties when the Berlin Wall came down — Petry was a teenager. In the 1990s, while Merkel was working her way up the hierarchy of the CDU, Petry was reading chemistry at Reading University — hence her fluent English. With her pageboy haircut and her androgynous good looks, she looks like a mischievous pixie. Since last summer, she’s been the leader of Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s new (and rapidly rising) right-wing political party. The political mischief she’s wreaking is turning German politics upside down.


After failing to win an absolute majority in the last general election, in 2013, Merkel formed a ‘grand alliance’ with Germany’s second biggest party, the left-leaning SPD. This coalition opened up a space on the right of German politics, a space which Alternative für Deutschland has filled.

Like a lot of new political parties, AfD is hard to define because it’s still evolving. It’s a bewildering amalgam of mainstream and extremist views. Founded in 2013 by a respectable group of politicians, economists and journalists to campaign against the euro, it’s since become (primarily) an anti-immigration party. And despite countless foot-in-mouth departures from Petry’s ‘liberal-conservative’ stance (by Petry herself, as well as various other AfD members), it’s achieved results unseen by a right-wing party in Germany since the war. In Germany’s last general election, just a few months after its foundation, AfD polled 4.7 per cent, just short of the 5 per cent required to enter parliament. In subsequent local elections they’ve polled as much as 24 per cent. In Merkel’s Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, they polled over 20 per cent.

Nobody seriously supposes that Petry’s AfD will play any role in the next German government (no other party will work with them — for now, at least), but it seems highly likely that they will play a significant role in the result. Petry is by no means gaffe-free, but she is presentable and plausible. Many of her statements seem outrageous to well-meaning liberals, but a lot of voters don’t seem to mind. Less than four years since its foundation, AfD already has representatives in 11 of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments. In opinion polls, they’re achieving around 15 per cent, which would make AfD the third biggest party in next year’s Bundestag.

Comparisons with Ukip are invidious, but like the rise of Ukip, the rise of AfD is creating unexpected consequences and changing the direction of other parties. Already, a rift has opened between Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU. These parties have always worked in tandem, but there are subtle differences between them, which Merkel’s refugee policy — and the consequent rise of AfD — has exposed. Catholic Bavaria is more conservative than the rest of Germany, which is reflected in the keener conservatism of the CSU. Prominent CSU politicians have been complaining that, under Merkel, the CDU has moved too far to the left. This summer, for the first time, there was even talk of fielding a rival CSU candidate for the Chancellorship.

However, there is another potential chancellor who is eminently electable — Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister since 2013. A favourite of Merkel’s, and widely tipped to succeed her, she’s been a great success in her defence job and, previously, as federal minister for family affairs. Her father was a politician too (she was born and raised in Brussels) but nobody could accuse her of lacking a proper hinterland. She is a medical doctor and did not enter politics until her early forties, working in a women’s clinic first. She is married to a professor of medicine, and along the way she’s somehow found the time to raise seven children (she also studied at the LSE).

I’ve only seen her once in the flesh, in a muddy field in Poland. I’d blagged a press pass to a Nato exercise. She’d come to meet the German troops. There were lots of other bigwigs there — Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, loads of military top brass — but it was her fleeting appearance which caused the biggest stir. She had the dash of stardust which German politicians usually seem so anxious to avoid. The soldiers were all thrilled to meet her. I watched her put them at their ease. If you’ve never come across her before, check her out on BBC’s Hardtalk, being interviewed by Stephen Sackur (you should be able to find it online). It’s one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen by a foreign politician on British TV.

Normally it might seem frivolous to bang on about a politician’s people skills, rather than discussing policy, but these are not normal times. What I saw in Poland last year, up close and personal, was a politician who can reach out to people who aren’t that interested in politics — the sort of people who rarely vote at all and are now voting AfD.

Von der Leyen is not a radical — her approach is measured and pragmatic. She’s an insider, not an outsider (a handicap in today’s iconoclastic climate) but she’s what Germany needs most right now, which is a safe pair of hands. After more than a decade as Chancellor, Merkel has used up her credit with the German electorate. Her protégé is ready for the top job — she’s been a minister for 11 years. Ursula von der Leyen is the only credible candidate with the charisma to unite the country. Will Mutti now do the decent thing, and stand aside?

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