As Angela Merkel embarks on fourth term as chancellor, what's new?

Angela Merkel faces the awkward task of persuading Germans she has something new to offer during her fourth term as chancellor. So can a 12-year veteran still change her leadership style?

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Angela Merkel declared on Monday. She was facing the press in Berlin to present the new German coalition contract alongside her coalition partner leaders, her new Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and her new Finance Minister Olaf Scholz.

Renewal will be an important theme for the fourth Merkel government, because for most political pundits in the German capital, the chancellor is stumbling rather than gliding into the new term.

The serene untouchability that has made her so successful so far has eroded over the last few months. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) scored its worst-ever election results last September — 33 percent was much more than any other party got, but looked like a defeat for a party that was used to persuading over 40 percent of Germans. Then came the rupture of the "Jamaica" coalition negotiations with the free-market gurus of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and a relatively conservative Green party.

Read more: Germany's coalition agreement — what's in it?

Deutschland Unterzeichnung Koalitionsvertrag

Merkel signed the new coalition contract on Monday

So what's new?

That three-way coalition would have been a first at federal level in Germany, and would have looked like a fresh plan to an electorate that had grown weary of the two big centrist parties that had governed the country for eight of the last 12 years.

But in the end, the FDP abandoned the talks, and then declared, damningly for the chancellor, that it would only join a coalition with the CDU without Merkel at the top.

Merkel addressed the issue of renewal before dozens of reporters on Monday by underlining all the changes she had already made and the new projects she had ahead: Restructuring of the federal government by adding construction and "Heimat" ("homeland") briefs to the Interior Ministry, and making "digital affairs," education and job training particular new foci.

She also made a point of noting that, apart from her own and that of Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, all the cabinet posts were about to be taken over by new people. "That will change all the discussions," she suggested. This government might look the same, she was implying, but really it's different.

Read more: Opposition parties skeptical over new grand coalition

Josef Janning, German political analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, is skeptical that Merkel herself can personally do much to win back lost voters. "She has introduced a couple of fresh faces, and they will have to do it," he told DW. "She will have to be the one to let them shine, to let them bring out innovation in a way that is not egocentric, but team-spirited. If she can do that, she can give the impression that new things are happening."

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Her most important policy area is Europe, Janning said. "She will have to demonstrate that she can reinvigorate Europe as an idea," he said. "And I believe she is serious about trying." 

Janning also thinks that the last few months have served as a corrective to European perceptions of Germany. "Before the election, Germany seemed to be the exception to all the rules of European politics, with no major anti-EU party, with a boring election campaign," he said. "This has been shattered. Now we're back to being a more or less normal country, led by a more or less normal political leader."

Read more: Merkel's next cabinet shows youth trend

Awkward concessions

This emphasis on renewal came out of the two awkward tasks that Merkel faced after the demise of the Jamaica coalition. First, she had to persuade her old partners, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), to join her in yet another "grand" coalition even though party leader Martin Schulz had ruled that out. Second, she had to sell the resulting coalition contract — which included some significant concessions to both the Social Democrats and her right-wing Bavarian allies the Christian Social Union (CSU) — to her own disgruntled party.

The heavy price for a fourth term has been noticeable in the CDU. Merkel had to appoint a right-wing CDU rival,  Jens Spahn, to her new cabinet as health minister, even though he has a rather different view of what the conservative party should do.

Not that Merkel is exactly progressive on social issues. Despite much talk about how she has dragged her party to the left, she voted against gay marriage in the Bundestag at the end of the last legislative period last summer, and rather infamously refused to describe herself as a feminist last April, while taking part in a podium discussion alongside some of the world's most powerful women. The debate was entitled "Inspiring Women."

Nor does she seem to set much store by diverse representation in the federal government: Only six of the 15 ministers in her new cabinet are women, none belong to an ethnic minority, and only one is from the former East Germany.

Changing her spots?

Deutschland Unterzeichnung Koalitionsvertrag

Merkel flanked by her new Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (left) and her new Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (right)

Merkel's longevity has often been put down to her careful, passive leadership style — it is often noted that she avoids big visionary speeches, instead seeking consensus while imposing her authority behind the scenes.

"Her leadership style is always compared to the same old, muscular, male-style politics," said Johanna Mair, professor for organization, strategy, and leadership at the Hertie School of Governance. "If we do not have leaders that are not testosterone-hijacked, male-style politicians, we are doomed. I am quite sure that we will evaluate her leadership in a couple of years very differently than today."

But the decline of the CDU and the SPD suggests that quiet centrism and compromise is falling out of fashion among the populace at the moment.

Janning doesn't think that will impress the chancellor. "Nothing is going to change Angela Merkel," he said. "As long as the outcome is alright, which in the eyes of many people in this country, and also beyond, is still the case, then the method is alright." Though her passivity in the coalition talks was criticized, "in the end what counted, in her approach to politics, is that she delivered a coalition."

For that reason, Janning doesn't think Merkel will develop the freer attitude often adopted by second-term US presidents. "A relative success will be if she manages to keep the coalition together in this electoral period, and also prepares the ground for somebody else to get a good result for the Christian Democrats in the next election," he said. "If she can do that, that will be considered a remarkable success."


Chancellor: Angela Merkel (CDU)

The new chancellor will be the same as the old one: Christian Democrat (CDU) Angela Merkel. It will be her fourth term as leader of the German government and the third time she heads up a grand coalition between the CDU, its conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats (SPD). It is also expected to be her last term as chancellor.


Chief of Staff at the Chancellery: Helge Braun (CDU)

Helge Braun, who is currently minister of state at the Chancellery, has been nominated by Merkel for the promotion to Chancellery head. He would take over from Peter Altmaier. Braun's rise within the body would ensure a certain continuity.


Minister of the Interior, Heimat and Construction: Horst Seehofer (CSU)

Seehofer, Bavaria's soon-to-be former state premier and chairman of the CSU, will head Germany's newly expanded Interior Ministry. This will be the first time that the vaguely patriotic "Heimat" concept (roughly "homeland") is included in a federal minister's domain. Bavaria, however, has had a state Heimat Ministry for five years.


The fight for the Foreign Ministry: Heiko Maas (SPD)

The most-talked about position in the upcoming Cabinet is that of foreign minister. After the SPD and CDU/CSU agreed on a policy blueprint, it became apparent that Sigmar Gabriel would not keep his position as head of the Foreign Ministry. He will be succeeded by former Justice Minister Heiko Maas.


Finance Minister: Olaf Scholz (SPD)

Scholz nomination for finance minister had been rumored for weeks. Currently the mayor of Hamburg, he is considered the high-level SPD politician with the most financial expertise. Scholz has been in Merkel's Cabinet once before, as minister of labor and social affairs from 2007 to 2009. The Finance Ministry's capture was a significant win for the SPD. Scholz will also serve as vice-chancellor.


Minister of Defense: Ursula von der Leyen (CDU)

Von der Leyen has been defense minister since 2013 and has now been tapped by Merkel to keep the job. This comes despite numerous scandals within the Bundeswehr, Germany's military, that broke since she took over the Defense Ministry. Her relationship with the troops has suffered, but Merkel trusts her. German media has speculated that Von der Leyen could be a potential successor to Merkel.


Economic and Energy Affairs Minister: Peter Altmaier (CDU)

Altmaier, currently Merkel's chief of staff at the Chancellery, has been nominated to take over the Economy Ministry. This would be the first time in more than 50 years that a CDU politician holds that post. Altmaier is regarded as extremely loyal to the chancellor. Questions of renewable energy and energy networks will also fall into Altmaier's portfolio.


Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection: Katarina Barley (SPD)

Heiko Maas was justice minister during the last government's term, but he's now taken over the reigns at the Foreign Ministry. Trained lawyer Katarina Barley will take on the post. She served as both minister of family affairs and minister of labor in 2017 as part of the previous government.


Minister of Labor and Social Affairs: Hubertus Heil (SPD)

Andrea Nahles will step down as labor minister to lead the SPD following Martin Schulz's decision to resign. Her successor, Hubertus Heil, was the surprise announcement when the SPD unveiled its Cabinet ministers. A member of the Bundestag since 1998, Heil has twice served as the party's secretary general.


Minister for the Environment: Svenja Schulze (pictured) or Matthias Miersch (both SPD)

Barbara Hendricks, Germany's outgoing minister for the environment, nature conservation and nuclear safety has reached retirement age. While she may well have liked to stay on in her job, the SPD leadership announced it was seeking a successor. Svenja Schulze will take over, having previously served as minister for innovation, science and research in North Rhine-Westphalia.


Minister for Health: Jens Spahn (CDU)

Merkel's nominee for health minister stands out: The 37-year-old Jens Spahn not only represents a new political generation within the CDU, but was also heavily critical of Merkel's welcoming policy toward refugees. In the last government he served as the parliamentary state secretary for the finance ministry, but prior to that he helped lead the CDU's health policy in the Bundestag.


Minister of Education and Research: Anja Karliczek (CDU)

Anja Karliczek, a former hotel manager who is relatively unknown, was nominated by Merkel to take over the Education Ministry. The new education minister will have a lot of money to spend: The ministry's budget was recently increased by €11 billion ($13.6 billion) to pay for school and university improvements, especially with respect to digitalization.


Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

Franziska Giffey's elevation from the mayor of Berlin's Neukölln district to Cabinet minister is perhaps the most eye-catching appointment. Giffey will bypass the Bundestag altogether to ascend into the government, but the SPD leadership believes her experience in charge of what has often been described as Berlin's "troubled" district makes her the most suitable candidate for the role.


Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development: Gerd Müller (CSU)

Gerd Müller, 62, has been tapped to retain his position as development minister, which he has held since December 2013. He won the job over fellow CSU member Dorothee Bär, who was also in the running. The CSU has thus chosen three men for its Cabinet posts, while Bär will become the state minister for digital affairs in the chancellery, a newly created job.


Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure: Andreas Scheuer (CSU)

Scheuer, considered a close ally of CSU party head Seehofer, is to take the Transport Ministry. He has had experience in the area: From 2009 to 2013, he held the position of parliamentary state secretary in the Transport Ministry. Right now, he is the CSU's Secretary General.


Minister for Food and Agriculture: Julia Klöckner (CDU)

Klöckner has been tapped to head the Agriculture Ministry, where she worked as parliamentary state secretary from 2009 to 2011. She is currently a deputy federal chairwoman of her party and leads the CDU in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Klöckner is the perfect candidate for Merkel, who has been called upon to assemble a younger and more female Cabinet this time around.