Angie the Revolutionary

How Germany's staid, go-slow chancellor is changing Europe forever.

BERLIN — From gigantic billboards across the country, a larger-than-life Angela Merkel smiles down benevolently on Germans, just as a kind school mistress or auntie might upon her charges. (One of the German chancellor's nicknames is Mutti, or mommy.) Merkel projects calm and confidence, even as the German election campaign enters its final, frenetic stage before the nationwide vote on Sept. 22. And why shouldn't she look confident? One thing Germans know virtually for certain about the race is that her conservative Christian Democrats will amass the most votes on election day. Unsurprisingly, the tag lines below Merkel's smiling visage -- stability, security, continuity -- reflect the essence of the conservatives' election campaign as well as Merkel's unstinting popularity.

Indeed, "revolutionary" is not an adjective anyone here in Germany would use to describe Merkel, the two-term chancellor widely known for her deliberate, ultracautious, consensus-focused style of governance. Whether the issue at hand is intervention in Syria or renewable energy, Merkel's approach is wait-and-see, holding off until she absolutely must act. Indeed, critics -- even in her own administration -- can be vexed by her slow-ball pace. In terms of her decision-making, Merkel is as careful and conservative as they come.

But during her eight years in the kanzleramt and more than a decade and a half at the helm of Germany's foremost conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel has presided over a dramatic upending of German conservatism -- even a revolution, one could say. Indeed, it took Merkel -- a party newcomer, a woman, an Easterner, and a Protestant -- to modernize an outmoded Christian democracy, making it more liberal and inclusive on domestic topics ranging from military conscription to nuclear power. In doing so, she has not only positioned her party to win a third straight nationwide vote, but she has changed Germany -- probably forever.

Under Merkel, Europe's premier Christian democratic party has abandoned many of the trademark positions that defined German conservatism during the Cold War years and well into the 1990s. Whether Merkel opted for this path out of conviction or realpolitik is beside the point -- what matters is that it has worked magic for the CDU. She rejuvenated a party that had grown stodgy, and she stole the thunder from her main rival, the Social Democratic Party, which never dreamed that German conservatives would ever invade its long-held turf so boldly.

It bears reminding that the CDU was born amid the rubble of postwar Germany, a broad alliance that brought together the splintered remnants of Weimar-era parties, the powerful Catholic Church, millions of resentful expellees, and even former Nazis under its big tent. Its founding father and undisputed leader for two decades was Konrad Adenauer, whose imprint on the CDU -- and indeed the Federal Republic as a whole -- would define it until unification and beyond.

A devoutly Catholic Rhinelander, Adenauer, born in 1876, presided over Germany's stunning Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle), as well as its entrance into NATO and entrenchment in the Western camp. Yet Adenauer balked at forcing ordinary Germans to come to terms with the recent past. The Catholic Church had unprecedented say in the CDU, which, for example, envisioned the proper role of German women as being defined by the three Ks: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church).

Of course, over the postwar decades the CDU rolled with many punches and tempered the Adenauer era's archconservatism. The liberalizing impact of a new generation of young Germans, the student uprising in the late 1960s, and the powerful mass movements of the 1970s, such as the women's movement, inevitably rubbed off on the party. Yet it remained male-dominated, socially old-school, and rigidly hierarchical.

By the time Helmut Kohl, another Catholic Rhinelander, stepped down in 1998, the CDU was hopelessly out of touch with German society. Just one example: Kohl used to fondly refer to Merkel, then a minister in his cabinet, as das Mädchen (the girl). Germany had changed profoundly since the early 1980s when Kohl came to power, not least with the addition of unification's 17 million Easterners to the country's population.

The party realized that it had to win back young, urban, and female swing voters, as well as make inroads into growing non-Christian constituencies. It required a revolution just to catch up to where modern Germany had traveled. But so entrenched were its denizens in the ethos and alliances of the past that it was impossible for them to pull it off.

Enter the 44-year-old Angela Merkel, who had been a party member for just eight years when she took the CDU's helm in 1998. The Merkel revolution -- fully in keeping with her judicious style -- wasn't by any means a storming of the Bastille, but rather an incremental, low-profile, and extremely effective transformation from within.

Her very person was a sensation: a woman in a heavily male-stocked party that still saw the role of women first and foremost as mothers in a traditional nuclear family. But Merkel, a professional physicist, had no Kinder and in fact wasn't even married to her longtime male partner until she joined the party (and was politely asked whether she'd consider marrying, which indeed she did in 1998).

When Merkel was first elected chancellor in 2005, the lefty-feminist magazine Emma, a publication she almost certainly doesn't read, celebrated with the joyful headline, "We Are the Chancellor!" A woman in the chancellery, taking over from a daunting pantheon of ego-driven alpha males, was a coup of vast proportions and one that resonated positively with the German public -- especially women. Despite the fact that the most powerful female politician in Europe shuns the term "feminist" as if it were an expletive, today 63 percent of German women -- including Germany's seminal feminist and Emma editor, Alice Schwarzer -- support Merkel. In the 2009 election, almost twice as many young women voted for the CDU than for the Social Democrats.

As for Kirche, never before had a Protestant (much less one previously divorced) been at the head of the party. In fact, it had been unthinkable, even though the CDU was de jure always open to all religions and included many Protestants. In the days of the old Bonn Republic, the Catholic Church enjoyed the unique advantage of outnumbering Protestants by more than two to one. But in the united Germany, the numbers of Catholics and Protestants are roughly equal and joined by a growing category of nonbelievers and people of other religions. The Eastern burghers are overwhelming members of the Protestant churches, strains of which are extremely liberal, like the one to which Merkel's father, a pastor in former East Germany, belonged.

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Merkel cleared out the first of the cobwebs before she even assumed the chancellorship in 2005. As party head, Merkel not only took over from Helmut Kohl, but she more or less cut him loose from the party, severing ties with her benefactor, who was then reeling from a party finances scandal. And as it happened, Kohl was just the first of a series of high-power, ideologically conservative men -- Merkel's prime rivals -- who have inelegantly exited the party during her tenure. Today, there's not a rival on the horizon -- or anyone of stature who dares question the CDU's march toward the political center.

The kind of new faces that have thrived under Merkel belong to figures like Ursula von der Leyen, a petite dynamo who as minister in both Merkel-led governments -- first in the Family Ministry and now in charge of labor and social affairs -- has unflaggingly pushed the envelope on social issues. (Von der Leyen runs a CDU working group called Eltern, Kind, Beruf -- parents, child, career -- effectively dumping Adenauer's three Ks into the dustbin of history.) The mother of seven children authors one batch of progressive legislation after another and would be at home -- though she'd deny it -- with either the Social Democrats or the Greens.

The list of Merkel-led violations of conservative creed is long, from phasing out nuclear power and adopting a minimum wage (for some sectors) to the welcoming of skilled immigrants. The Merkel-era family and workplace policies, however, are arguably at the front of the chancellor's modernizing. To help working parents balance jobs and family, the Merkel government instituted new tax breaks for child-care costs, paternity leave for fathers, and laws to ensure parents day-care spots for all children over age 1. The chancellor pulled an unsightly U-turn in party policy by agreeing to a 30 percent quota for women on the boards of companies, the kind of quotas long adopted in other European countries from Norway to France.

These Merkel/von der Leyen reforms are straight from the Social Democrats' playbook and had even been initiated by the 1998-2005 "red-green" government before these two women. But now these reforms bear Merkel's name. Although there are still differences between the CDU's family policies and those of the Social Democrats -- differences that the leftists are desperately trying to hammer home -- there are ever fewer.

The CDU, for example, now also reaches out to unconventional families, like those with single mothers, unmarried couples, and even gay and lesbian partners. In the recent past, gay rights were a no-go area for Christian Democrats. Not anymore. The party endorses same-sex partnerships, if not with all the same rights as married heterosexuals. But even this could fall soon.

This year, Merkel caved in to her party's conservative faction by taking a stand against allowing same-sex couples to adopt children together. But Germany's highest court overturned the ban. "A family is where children are loved and responsibly cared for," editorialized the country's conservative daily, Die Welt, a sign that the revolution had even permeated its thick walls. In a typically low-profile Merkel move, she accepted the ruling dispassionately and signaled that the party should fall in line, which it did, dealing hard-liners yet another blow. (The party's top-down, follow-the-leader hierarchy is one thing that hasn't changed since the old days, another explanation for Merkel's inordinate clout.)

As for foreign policy, Merkel has been much less transformative in this area, certainly when compared with the 1998-2005 "red-green" government of Social Democrats and Greens, which oversaw a vast expansion of German military involvement across the country's borders, for example in Kosovo and Afghanistan. In the Middle East, Germany's tentative reaction to the Arab Spring and hands-off position on military intervention in Libya and Syria have elicited strong criticism, not least from the United States, which would like to see Germany take a stronger global leadership role. But for her part, Merkel seems perfectly content with Germany's mocked-at "checkbook diplomacy," namely staying put until the dust has settled and then paying for postwar reconstruction.

Likewise, Merkel's reaction to the eurocrisis has been anything but proactive -- though enormously successful in the eyes of average Germans. She waited and dithered and waffled as the financial crisis in 2008 turned into the eurocrisis and eventually brought both the common currency and the European Union itself to the brink of collapse. Despite her initial promises to the contrary, Germany made concession after concession to its European partners. The list of flip-flops includes the creation of a permanent bailout fund, a significantly broader mandate for the European Central Bank, and the direct recapitalization of eurozone banks, among others. A third Greek rescue package, which now seems inevitable, would come on top of these back-downs.

Yet at home, Germans see Merkel as tenaciously defending their interests on the European stage. The buzz terms in her campaign ads -- stability, security, continuity -- are cryptic references to the way she has managed the eurocrisis, ensuring prosperity in Germany while bailing out the Southern Europeans and rescuing the European Union. This, at least, is the way many Germans see it.

Merkel's modernization of German conservatism is one of the main reasons that she has been able to get away with such a blatantly Germany-first approach in the eurocrisis. The nationalism of the old CDU was tainted with bloodline definitions of Germanness and the radicalism of the expellees, who saw their real Heimat in a Germany east of the Oder-Neisse. Merkel's progressive CDU has not only distanced itself immeasurably from such relics of the Bonn Republic, but it has gone much further. Critics may fear the economic clout and monetary stinginess of a "German Europe," but gone -- perhaps forever -- is the fear of Germany breaching their borders.

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The fresh face of the CDU doesn't necessarily look like a fully fledged revolution here in Germany because most of German society had already undergone these changes: Germany was multicultural; women worked; gays lived with one another; most people opposed nuclear power -- and so on. Merkel, ever the mediator, adjusted to the realities of modern Germany with as little pomp as possible -- the Merkel way. One upshot is that the Social Democrats are now pressed to draw a clear distinction between themselves and the chancellor's party.

Rubbing salt in these wounds, the conservatives have also occupied the economic policies of the last Social Democratic administration, led by Gerhard Schröder. Schröder's adjustments to the social welfare state, as well as his pro-business labor and tax reforms, made him deeply unpopular within his own party. A decade down the road, however, even Merkel admits that Schröder's measures paved the way for Germany's recovery and deserve credit for its stellar showing in the depths of the eurocrisis. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, don't know what to do with the legacy of the Schröder reforms, at times criticizing them as too draconian, while at others praising them as visionary.

This has made life very difficult for the Social Democrats' candidate, Peer Steinbrück, a center-of-the-road figure who served as Merkel's finance minister in the grand coalition of 2005 to 2009. The two figures got along quite well, certainly better than do Merkel's CDU and its current partner in office, the free-market-minded Free Democrats. This has led to rampant speculation that what both Merkel and Steinbrück want is another grand coalition, which opinion polls show could be a possibility. Most probably, this is as much as the Social Democrats can hope for.

One development worth keeping an eye on is the Alternative for Germany, an anti-euro party to the right of the CDU. Merkel's seizure of the center has been possible because there has been no far-right party in Germany since her ascendance. Almost every other country on the continent has a jingoistic, hot-headed nationalist party in its legislature -- except Germany. This is probably more a result of happenstance -- the absence of the right person with the right slogans and money to boot -- rather than a testament to Germany's democratic culture. (Opinion polls show Germany having proportions of Islamophobia, racism, and anti-EU sentiment equal to those in countries with vibrant far-right parties.) But whatever the explanation, Merkel could shift far to the left without worrying about losing her ideological conservatives; they had nowhere else to go. But this is no longer the case, and disgruntled rightists have defected, though not in large numbers -- yet.

As frustratingly gradual and tempered as Merkel's conservative revolution has been, it has helped make Germany as a whole more modern and, ultimately, more powerful. The German economy's fortunes, called by some a second Wirtschaftswunder, have only augmented this clout.

Yet, this is power that Merkel has yet to wield for any real purpose other than sentencing the Southern Europeans to a future of austerity and mounting debt. In Europe and beyond, statesmen are calling for Merkel to step up to lead Europe out of the economic crisis and become more active on the global stage. Even on topics that don't require force of arms, like global warming, Germany has become almost mute; once a pioneer in clean energy production, Merkel has now backed off, cowed by the implications of its success. Today, Germany's foreign minister travels from one conflict region to another mouthing truisms and promising aid. Merkel has indeed changed Europe -- but in taking Germany off the world stage, cautiousness has not proved to be her greatest virtue.

Never before in postwar Europe has Germany been so mighty, wealthy, and sovereign. Hopefully, in her third term, Merkel will make use of this stature for progressive causes -- the way she has in her own party.


Democracy Lab

Coming In From the Cold

For years the Houthis have been derided as subversives and separatists. Now they're sitting at the table in Sanaa.

SANAA, Yemen — As a seemingly endless line of cars snaked its way into the northern Yemeni city of Saada, the atmosphere was festive. The people had come to attend the funeral of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the man whose name became synonymous with one of the country's major political and religious movements. Yet while the Houthis and their supporters were no doubt mourning their leader's death, the event, which drew hundreds of thousands of attendees earlier this year, was also a celebration of sorts.

Such a gathering would have been unthinkable only a few years ago when the whole of Saada governorate was under a wartime blockade. But after nearly a decade of fighting with the central government, the Houthi movement has enjoyed a rapid post-Arab Spring increase in both support and legitimacy.

"They are sitting at the table negotiating with all the others, including those that fought these wars against them," said Jamal Benomar, the U.N. special advisor on Yemen, on a recent trip to Saada. This new dynamic is a welcome change from the recent past, when Yemeni officials routinely derided the Houthis as Iranian-backed "terrorists" (a claim the group vehemently denies). But the former rebels' slingshot-like entrance into mainstream politics is also raising serious concerns about what comes next.

How much autonomy the Houthis will ultimately acquire, and whether those at the table have the will to let peaceful negotiations take their course, are among the critical unanswered questions. Making the situation even more precarious is the fact that all of the armed groups participating in the discussions share a deep-seated mutual distrust. (The Houthis, for their part, say they command the loyalty of some 100,000 fighters, though the assertion is impossible to verify.) As long as those fears are held at bay, however, the era of unprecedented Houthi inclusion will continue.

The Houthi movement started as a confluence of revivalist Zaydi Islam, a moderate Shiite offshoot, and anti-American sentiment. In the early 2000s, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the son of a prominent Zaydi scholar, began giving Friday sermons against what he viewed as the growing dangers of American hegemony. The idea caught on, and with the help of their uncompromising slogan ("Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!"), support for al-Houthi's movement grew. This soon attracted scrutiny from then-President Ali Abullah Saleh, who saw the movement as a potential threat to his control and the influence of his tribal allies.

Tensions reached a breaking point in 2004, when Saleh tried to have al-Houthi arrested. Three months of violence erupted, ending in al-Houthi's death at the hands of government forces. This first war was followed by five more in Saada and surrounding areas. Over the years thousands are thought to have died, while over 300,000 have been internally displaced.

The spiral of violence may very well have continued if the Arab Spring had not spread to Yemen. The uprisings diverted the regime's attention and opened political space that the Houthis eagerly helped to fill. Taking on the alias Ansar Allah, or "supporters of god," the group's anti-establishment, anti-American message resonated with Yemenis looking for change. The Houthis made inroads with both the Zaydis, who make up 45 percent of the Yemeni population, and others who, after years of witnessing mismanagement and corruption, had lost respect for the established political parties.

"The Houthis are evolving as a group," said April Alley, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG). "Rebranding themselves as Ansar Allah is certainly an indication that they are trying to become a more national movement as opposed to associating themselves with a family name."

Their territorial expansion has been as significant as their political one. The Houthis are now virtually in control of Saada city and much of the rest of the governorate. They man their own security checkpoints and boast well-organized police and paramilitary wings. Their green-lettered banners are ubiquitous. Just as importantly, Houthi support is also spreading beyond their stronghold to areas where their presence had been comparatively muted -- including Sanaa, the capital.

The Houthis' quick transformation from a repressed insurgent group to a potent political force has left the political establishment little choice but to seek to integrate it. This is partly a function of broader efforts to boost political inclusion following Saleh's ouster. But it's also a recognition of the Houthis' formidable physical strength and broadening appeal. Progress has so far been admirable, but has resulted in few tangible solutions.

Amid the shelled-out buildings and piles of rubble that sit as stark reminders of the all too recent past, a tense calm settled over Saada following presidential elections in 2012. "There is cooperation from the government, especially after the success of the popular revolution," said Yahiya al-Mahdi, a deputy governor of the province and Ansar Allah adherent. He goes on to explain that there is a tacit agreement on security in which the sides each "play a role." The more general consensus, however, is that the Houthis hold the upper hand in the relationship.

Despite early comments by Houthi leaders, the group has also shown a surprising willingness to participate in the political transition process. "People were at a crossroads: war or dialogue," said Abdulkareem Jadban, a Houthi member of parliament. "And dialogue was the best way to arrive at a solution for Yemen."

Jadban is referring to the ongoing National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a pillar of the internationally brokered transition roadmap that was adopted as a condition of Saleh relinquishing the presidency. Held in Sanaa, the six-month conference -- which may very well be extended beyond its scheduled Sept. 18 end date -- is meant to bring together 565 people from across the political spectrum to discuss the new constitution and other matters fundamental to the future of the state. How to deal with Saada is among the most important issues being tackled. Ansar Allah was allotted 35 seats and its delegates have been active contributors.

The Houthis are playing politics in the more traditional sense as well. They have, for example, been cooperating with other formerly marginalized groups in Yemen, such as factions of the southern independence movement (Hirak) and the socialist party. They are also seriously considering forming an official political party or coalition through which they can contest elections.

Although political dialogue is preferable to conflict, there is a long way still to go. The Houthis have won limited concessions during the NDC, the most notable of which is an official apology from the government for the Saada wars. The NDC committee tasked with addressing the issue has also agreed on 37 other points, including provisions related to disarmament, the release of prisoners and religious tolerance, but implementation is another matter entirely. In short, a permanent Saada solution remains elusive and the road is becoming rockier.

"Our relationship with the government is very tense," said Jadban in June, just days after government forces shot a number of Houthi protesters in front of the National Security Bureau in Sanaa (official claims that demonstrators were armed have not been independently substantiated). Later that month, a suicide bomber attacked a market in Saada, leaving at least two dead.

More recently, there have been an escalating series of clashes between the Houthis and followers of Sunni Islam (Salafis as well as tribesmen supporting the Islamist Islah party). The re-emergence of sectarian and political conflict is a development that worries many observers. The Houthis are armed with anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons. So are their enemies. And no one has ruled out using force in cases of self-defense, a justification with blurry connotations. Return to open hostilities could have destabilizing ripple effects.

Up till now though, the Houthis' swift post-Arab Spring growth and arrival on the political scene have been accommodated relatively smoothly. But as Yemen's transition continues, the way forward is still uncertain. In part this is because the Houthis have yet to present a political platform that placates their skeptics.

"If the people of Saada want independence, we can take it. But we don't want anything except a modern civil state that rules all Yemenis," proclaimed Abu Mohammed, a resident of Saada and a Houthi supporter, more bluntly echoing the vague stance of the movement's leadership. Others add, in equally nebulous terms, that the group is prepared to cede ground once a capable and tolerant government is in place.

This highlights the point that the Houthi issue does not exist in a vacuum. A solution for them is inextricably linked to debates about the independence of the south, whether Yemen should become a federal state, and how the constitution should be written, among other foundational topics. A fully articulated Houthi position may therefore not emerge until a more basic question is answered. As April Alley of ICG asks, "After moving out of this transition period, how does power settle?"

That remains anyone's guess. Yet while Yemeni politics has long been a delicate balancing act, it's already clear that the Houthis currently carry more weight than ever.