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Merkel Shines Amid Virus Crisis        03/29 09:41

   BERLIN (AP) -- In her first address to the nation on the coronavirus 
pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel calmly appealed to citizens' reason 
and discipline to slow the spread of the virus, acknowledging as a woman who 
grew up in communist East Germany how difficult it is to give up freedoms, yet 
as a trained scientist emphasizing that the facts don't lie.

   Then, wearing the same blue pantsuit from the televised address, the 
65-year-old popped into her local supermarket to pick up food, wine and toilet 
paper to take back to her Berlin apartment. For her, it was a regular shopping 
stop, but photos snapped by someone at the grocery store were shared worldwide 
as a reassuring sign of calm leadership amid a global crisis. 

   With the coronavirus outbreak,  Merkel is reasserting her traditional 
strengths and putting her stamp firmly on domestic policy after two years in 
which her star seemed to be fading, with attention focused on constant 
bickering in her governing coalition and her own party's troubled efforts to 
find a successor.

   Merkel has run Germany for more than 14 years and has over a decade's 
experience of managing crises. She reassured her compatriots in the 2008 
financial crisis that their savings were safe, led a hard-nosed but 
domestically popular response to the eurozone debt crisis, and then took an 
initially welcoming --- but divisive --- approach to an influx of migrants in 
2015.

   In the twilight of her chancellorship, she faces her biggest crisis yet --- 
a fact underlined by her decision last week to make her first television 
address to the nation other than her annual New Year's message.

   "This is serious --- take it seriously," she told her compatriots. "Since 
German unification --- no, since World War II --- there has been no challenge 
to our country in which our acting together in solidarity matters so much."

   With Germany largely shutting down public life, she alluded to her youth in 
communist East Germany as she spelled out the scale of the challenge and made 
clear how hard she found the prospect of clamping down on people's movement. 

   "For someone like me, for whom freedom of travel and movement were a 
hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified by absolute necessity," 
she said. But they were, she said, "indispensable at the moment to save lives."

   The drama was evident in Merkel's words, but the manner was familiar: 
Matter-of-fact and calm, reasoning rather than rousing, creating a message that 
hit home.

   It is a style that has served the former physicist well in juggling 
Germany's often-fractious coalitions and maintaining public support over the 
years. 

   "Merkel painted a picture of the greatest challenge since World War II, but 
she did not speak of war," the influential Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper 
wrote. "She did not rely on martial words or gestures, but on people's reason. 
... Nobody knows if that will be enough, but her tone will at least not lead 
the people to sink into uncertainty and fear."

   Merkel's response to the coronavirus pandemic is still very much a work in 
progress, but a poll released Friday by ZDF television showed 89% of Germans 
thought the government was handling it well. The poll saw Merkel strengthen her 
lead as the country's most important politician, and a strong 7% rise for her 
center-right Union bloc after months in which it was weighed down by questions 
over its future leadership.

   The poll, done by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, had a margin of error of plus or 
minus 3 percentage points.

   The 65-year-old chancellor initially had Health Minister Jens Spahn be the 
public face of the government's response, drawing some criticism but has taken 
center stage over the past two weeks.

   She kept that up after going into quarantine on Sunday after a doctor who 
gave her a vaccination tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then she has 
twice tested negative for the virus herself but continues to work from home. 

   On Monday, she led a Cabinet meeting by phone from home and then issued an 
audio message setting out a huge government relief package to cushion the blow 
of the crisis to business  --- a format she said was "unusual, but it was 
important to me."

   Her vice chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who is also finance minister and a member 
of her coalition partner Social Democrats, has also had a chance to shine in 
the crisis, leading the way with the aid package that will allow Germany to 
offer businesses  more than 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) that he described 
as a "bazooka."

   The jury is still out on how the government's approach will work, but after 
having run a budget surplus for a half-decade, Germany is well-prepared to 
offer the massive aid program. Its health care system has been in good enough 
shape to be taking in patients from overwhelmed Italy and France, with 
intensive care beds still available. 

   Although Germany has registered the third-highest number of coronavirus 
infections in Europe with 57,695, it has only seen 433 people die, placing it 
sixth in Europe behind Italy, Spain, France, Britain and even the Netherlands. 
Italy alone has over 10,000 dead. 

   Experts have attributed Germany's success partially to widespread and early 
testing for the virus, among other things. 

   In an  audio message Thursday night, Merkel cautioned, however, that it was 
far too early to declare victory over COVID-19, saying "now is not the time to 
talk about easing measures."

   No matter what the outcome of Germany's virus-fighting efforts, it won't 
change the fact that the Merkel era is drawing to a close. Merkel has never 
shown any signs of backing off her 2018 vow to leave politics at Germany's next 
election, due next year.

   But the crisis may burnish her government's lackluster image and improve its 
chances of making it through to the fall of 2021, after persistent speculation 
that it wouldn't last the full legislative term.

   And it certainly could put her successor on a better footing ---though just 
who that will be is also up in the air. Merkel stepped down as her party's 
leader in 2018 but her own choice as a successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 
lasted just over a year before declaring that she would step down after failing 
to establish her authority.

   The decision on who will take over the leadership of Merkel's Christian 
Democratic Union party was supposed to be made in April, but has been put on 
hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. 


(KR)

 
 
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