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Why Merkel's car turnaround will come

Despite ”Dieselgate” and cartel allegations, the first so called diesel summit of the German Government and the car industry led to …. nothing. Or to be more precise, the manufacturers remained untouched. Was that it? Or is something else to come? Angela Merkel – the chancellor of direct democracy by opinion poll – will nevertheless turn against the automotive industry if the majority of German citizens wants it. Maybe tomorrow, definitely after the national elections in September this year. That’s how Angela Merkel’s system works.

22. August 2017

So far, the German government has been very protective of the interests and profits of the German automotive industry. It has dismissed calls for hardware updates or stricter guidelines, and refused to issue hard legislation to foster future innovation. Only recently, it was revealed that politics and car manufacturers in Germany are so closely intertwined that the Prime Minister of the federal state of Lower Saxony (home and co-owner of the Volkswagen group) let his press releases concerning the diesel be checked by VW-bosses before handing them out to the media. It’s a scandal! Why would there be any reason to believe that the buddies of the bosses would ever turn against them?

First evidence: The leader and chancellor candidate of the German social democrats, Martin Schulz, announced a 5-point plan to boost the electric car in an attempt to capitalize on the meager results of the diesel summit. After a short moment of reflection, Angela Merkel, the ”auto chancellor” who had so far avoided to criticize her favorite industry, made a surprising declaration, telling a newspaper that the end of the combustion engine would be a “good approach”. She avoided to provide any binding information about when and how this end could look like – as if she did not want to scare industry bosses. But she might have finally recognized fraud and corruption in the automotive industry as a potentially decisive theme in the campaign for the national elections in September this year.

Burying their heads in the sand won’t help car manufacturers. Picture: Pixabay


“Merkel won’t let the industry bosses walk all over her”

“Merkel wants to keep Martin Schulz in check,” says Ivo Banek, Managing Partner at Communication Works, who closely follows the automotive industry from a communication perspective. “Merkel does not want to leave the momentum to him in this matter. With her statement she has certainly succeeded!”

“Not only journalists and commentators are outraged about the enormous influence that the automotive industry seems to have over German politics in general and over the Chancellery in particular,” says Banek’s colleague Sabine Froning. ”Many Germans have the impression that industry politics are no longer made by elected politicians, but by the industry itself. Merkel knows that people don’t like that. That’s why she is sending the message: Diesel and cartel are on my personal priority list. I won’t let the industry bosses walk all over me.”


Systematic listening through opinion polls

Angela Merkel – that’s a main take away from her twelve years in office – bides her time when it comes to the really big topics. Germany’s chancellor lets others do the talking first, in order to decide on a standpoint at the moment that suits her purposes best – irrespectively of the expectations of her own party members or her own electoral promises. Why is she doing this? And what does it mean for the automotive industry?

First of all this: Merkel is often said to have an almost Machiavellian instinct for the moods and sensitivities of the German people. But in reality, what is thought to be instinct is in fact the result of systematic listening with the help of opinion polls. Angela Merkel practices a direct democracy that comes close to what the late Pirate Party always dreamed of: the so called “liquid democracy”.

The core of Merkel’s understanding of democracy and the maintaining of power is her conviction that her own opinion is not decisive for the political direction of the country, but the majority opinion of the people. And that a majority opinion is impossible to determine ahead of time in elections that take place every four years.


Merkel values the majority opinion higher than her own and her electoral promises

Merkel has thus carried out more fundamental changes in her political agenda than perhaps any German chancellor before her. The sheer memory of the energy turnaround should make the bosses of the auto industry shiver. After the Fukushima reactor disaster, Merkel took a u-turn from her very own decision to prolong the lifetime of nuclear power plants, when she noticed a landslide opinion shift against nuclear power in the German population. Merkel was then seen as a convinced friend of nuclear power. And yet, she turned against the interest of the energy and nuclear lobbies, which were well-networked in her own party, christian democratic CDU.

Angela Merkel took a close look at opinion polls and understood that following Fukushima a large majority of voters – especially a significant majority within important stakeholder groups – favored a quick exit from nuclear power. She also realised that the impression that the nuclear lobby had a decisive influence on her policy, might cause considerable damage to her own reputation. The result was the energy turnaround: Merkel wanted to demonstrate to the voters that she actually represented the popular will and not the interests of some influential puppet masters behind the scenes.


Knowing what the people think

One may wonder how this fits with our traditional understanding of democracy. However, unlike referendums, opinion polls still leave the actual decision to the politician. He or she can interpret the outcome of polls in the light of his or her political agenda and political experience, and remains in charge of taking into consideration possible conflicting interests, circumstances or moods. To know – and not just to “sense” – what people think, however, is a great advantage for the politician Merkel.

And it is of paramount importance for those whose activity or business is dependent on political decisions and societal opinion-making processes. The Merkel system challenges the life expectation of backroom deals. Only recently, Merkel, who is the daughter of a priest, demonstrated her ”system” with regard to the topic of same sex marriage, that she personally strictly opposes. With disarming openness, the Chancellor showed that she would execute upon the majority opinion, even if it completely contradicted her own position.


The end of backroom deals

Hence, this is what the car manufacturers should prepare for: The internal combustion engine will disappear faster than Merkel’s current industry-friendly attitude may make believe. Surveys indicate that a large majority of Germans want to ban diesel from their cities. That they find that the automotive industry ”owes” their customers. That they resent the politicians’ alleged proximity to the bosses.

“As long as the pressure does not rise,” says Ivo Banek, “Merkel will be content with keeping Martin Schulz in check. I believe the fear of loosing jobs in the car industry still prevails over her indignation. Therefore, I am rather positive that Merkel will wait until after the elections before she gets a go at the auto bosses. Germany will then play a pioneering role in the transition to the automotive industry.”

His colleague Sabine Froning agrees: “If, however, new pressure comes – whether in the context of the EU cartel procedure or through new disclosures – Merkel might still drastically change her attitude towards the car industry even before the elections. Popular opinion might boil up and the car question could become a key matter off the election campaign,” she says. “Merkel knows that the auto bosses have lost people’s trust. Thus, they can no longer count on her.”


Digitalisation transforms the citizen into a political user

Merkel is sometimes accused of not being loyal to her own political program, since she would adapt to changing majorities by changing her own political agenda. The Merkel system is a step away from the “analogous influence” towards a digital majority. Digitalization makes it possible for politicians to focus on “citizens slash users”, whose usage is ubiquitous. Angela Merkel wants to know what is relevant for the “users” of her agenda.

Digitalization provides the possibility of regular cross-checks. How does my agenda work? How many citizens agree with me? Even more: How to best develop the agenda that people are most likely to expect or hope for? Very concretely. Because: only when it becomes concrete, many voters really have a choice.

Focusing on citizens also means learning from the user through the user. Making politics, administration, products and services better, because you will look at them much more critically when you know when you win or lose the citizens/customers/users.

With Community Scouting, Communication Works offers as a tool that not only allows governments to let citizens directly participate in the development of politics or business, but even companies, organizations, or administrations.

Text: Niels Reise