Challenged by Martin Schulz, Merkel's free vote will appeal to liberal voters—while her personal discomfort will reassure her baseby Matthew Qvortrup / June 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
“What is she up to?” asked one of the emails I received. Another one simply stated, “How could she?” Being the biographer of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was as if I was personally responsible for her decision to vote against marriage equality—or Ehe für alle, as the Germans call it.
After the vote in the German parliament Friday morning, Frau Merkel, stated what she has said on numerous occasions: that she believes “marriage is between a man and a woman.”
This is not a surprise. But many of my liberal friends and colleagues were aghast. “Angela” (note the intimacy) was believed to be a liberal; a poster-girl for all the values we miss in British Conservative politicians. After all, wasn’t she the one who opened the borders to the huddled masses while we pulled up the drawbridge? And wasn’t she the woman who championed workers’ rights, and green policies, in defiance of Donald Trump?
But the assumption that Angela Merkel is a soft liberal is wrong in its fundamental premise. For starters, it ignores how different British and German politics is.
Merkel is not a conservative in the sense that she could be a Tory in Great Britain. She is rather a leader of the Christian Democratic Party. The clue is in the name. The daughter of an East German pastor, Merkel is a church-going woman who is author of a book entitled Daran glaube ich: Christliche Standpunkte (“What I believe in: Christian Points of View”) It is equally telling that the most recent biography about her in her native language is Volker Resing’s book Angela Merkel: Die Protestantin—“Angela Merkel: the Protestant.”
Merkel would never say that homosexuality is a sin, but as a former Chairwoman of the Protestant Caucus in the Bundestag, she is someone who always has championed traditional values.
Above all, however, Merkel is a politician, and the debate must be understood in the context of German politics at the moment.
With a September election looming, her opponent Social Democrat Martin Schulz—whose party is 17 points behind Merkel’s in the polls—played one of his last cards: he declared that he would only enter into coalition with parties that would pass a law on gay marriage. The move was a cunning one: all parties except for Merkel’s CDU/CSU support marriage equality. This was a redline issue for all of them.
But to his surprise, Merkel told the Brigitte—a woman’s magazine which she has often used for interviews—that gay marriage was a non-partisan issue, and that she would support a free vote.
Schulz could do nothing but table a Bill in Parliament. 60 per cent of the Bundestag voted for the motion.
Schulz won—but he was not victorious. By allowing the vote, Merkel beat Schulz on his last card, and ensured that there are no barriers preventing the CDU from entering into a coalition with any of the other parties.
By allowing the vote, Merkel will go down in history as the German Chancellor who presided over the legalisation of gay marriage. This will not only please more liberally-oriented voters, but simultaneously appeal to Merkel’s base. By saying that she, personally, is “uneasy” and “unconvinced” by marriage equality, she will reassure the conservative voters who felt she had abandoned them—and who may otherwise have been tempted to vote for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland.
From a tactical point of view, the decision to allow gay marriage, but vote against it herself, shows—once again—that Angela Merkel is a master tactician who has a clear sense of how to win elections. For others, including some in her own party, her willingness to let her opponents table a motion allowing a policy that is opposed by many on the Catholic right smacks of opportunism. “Are we going to change our view whenever it is politically convenient?” asked the conservative politician Wolfgang Bosbach, one of Merkel’s sharpest critics, in the Stuttgarter Zeitung.
Merkel’s tacit answer is affirmative; some social issues can be sacrificed for the sake of winning elections. She might be a churchgoing politician who writes books on Christian ethics‑ but above all Merkel is a cunning politician. No wonder many in Germany call her Merkelavelli.