Saturday, December 4

Merkel’s health intensifies debate over her succession


 

 

After a second episode in which Ms. Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, trembled uncontrollably in public last week, she headed to the airport, took a 12-hour flight to Japan, held 10 bilateral meetings and four group sessions with world leaders, including President Trump, then flew back to Europe for a record-breaking 20-hour negotiation with her European counterparts in Brussels.

The last several days have been a reminder of Ms. Merkel’s storied stamina, proven in countless crisis summits during her 14 years in office.

But they also reinforce the mystery of what exactly is going on with the health of the woman who has been the rock of European politics at a time when the authority of both her party and her country appear to be declining.

When Angela Merkel trembles, the whole union trembles, Stephan-Andreas Casdorff wrote in the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

On the surface, Ms. Merkel’s two recent trembling episodes within the space of 10 days, which followed a previous incident two years ago in Mexico, have been a strikingly low-key affair in Germany, a country fiercely protective of privacy.

Tight-lipped advisers planted the idea that the second recent episode was psychosomatic, brought on by the memory of the first. The chancellor herself deflected questions in Japan, saying she had nothing special to report.

In Brussels this week, Ms. Merkel failed to muster her hallmark consensus-building powers and steer her peers even to her second-choice candidate for the European Union’s top job. Still, in the final hours of negotiations on Tuesday, her influence proved important in getting a German, her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, nominated as the president of the powerful European Commission.

But domestically, opinion polls now regularly put Ms. Merkel’s conservatives in second place behind the liberal Greens.

Ms. Merkel’s anointed successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who last fall won the contest to succeed the chancellor as head of their conservative party, has seen her approval rating drop sharply in recent weeks as questions about her capacity to lead the party into the next election have grown louder.

Possible rivals like Armin Laschet, the leader of Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, and Markus Söder, the leader of Bavaria’s conservatives, who pair with Ms. Merkel’s party nationally are being floated as alternative candidates for the chancellery, an office traditionally tied to party leadership.

In the meantime, Ms. Merkel, freed from having to run the party and organize the next election, has seen her popularity bounce back only reinforcing the contrast with the embattled Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer.

When the chancellor announced her decision to run for a fourth four-year term in 2017 she added, explicitly, health permitting.

The qualification, which barely registered at the time, now has a different ring to it.

The flip side of Ms. Merkel’s commitment to serving out her fourth term until 2021, said Nico Fried, a commentator in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, is the promise to quit if her physical strength reaches its limit.

Citizens can expect that respect of her, Mr. Fried wrote. Just as Merkel can expect the public’s respect in the discussion about her health.

The German public deserves to know what is going on, Mr. Schwennicke wrote. It does not deserve to be treated with Kremlin-levels of secrecy.

Germany is fiercely protective of privacy, and health has always been considered a private matter in the country.

In the 1970s, Chancellor Willy Brandt suffered from grave depression and had multiple affairs, something that was well-known in journalists’ circles during his time in office but was not publicly discussed.

His successor, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, had a heart ailment that resulted in him being found unconscious in his office multiple times. But again, the news media did not write about his health until after he left office.

Over time, the taboo softened as some German politicians became more open about their health. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke publicly about donating a kidney to his wife.

Wolfgang Schäuble, the veteran lawmaker and former finance minister, has used a wheelchair for decades. And Malu Dreyer, one of Germany’s 16 state governors, publicly announced that she had multiple sclerosis.

But Ms. Merkel has taken privacy to another level and not just on her health, her biographers say.