“Schwedt, Leninallee” – Scan of an old post card from the GDR

»What will be when Merkel is gone? Who, if not Merkel, can do the job? Who on earth could replace her?! Who??!!« – I’m not quite sure how often I heard people lament like this recently, but it was more than two or three times.

Utterances like those remind me of the time when I was a boy, a boy growing up in a land without democracy (except as a well-sounding label to the state’s name) and without liberty.

I’d just turned ten when suddenly photographs of the big leader of our Soviet brothers and sisters were popping up in shop windows, on blackboards and in newspapers. Those photographs had a black bar across the top left or top right corner. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, General Secretary of the governing Communist Party and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was no more!

Not that I knew much about politics. I was more interested in the plains tribes of North America and in playing buffalo hunting with my friends or swapping stamps. And apart from the pastimes commensurate to my age, I lived in a state where politics was not subject to open discussion or thorough explanation.

But I had some faint notions of what was good or rather who was good (we) and who was bad (the West); of what was important or rather who was important (functionaries) and who was not (the glorified working class). Brezhnev was important, very much so – even more important than the wise leaders of my own Socialist home country. That was something I knew, however vague my ideas about Brezhnev’s functions were.

And now I saw those photos and headlines announcing that big man’s demise. I remember, that I was genuinely worried, wondering what our friends in the Soviet Union would do now. There couldn’t possibly be any replacement for Brezhnev, no way. That would have been like suggesting that someone else than Erich Honecker could lead the GDR. Unthinkable!

At ten years, I’d never known another chief of government than Honecker. Nor another leader of the Soviet Union than Brezhnev.

Of course, I did not ponder about these things for too long. There are other matters that demand a boy’s attention. And above all: I found myself in a democratic state two years later.

Yeah, the reader might ask, that was an interesting little story but how on earth does it relate to Ms Merkel and people wondering who could be her heir?

Well, we’ve just arrived at the heart of the matter!

I said heir and you didn’t even flinch – admit it. And that’s my point: democracy is something that must live, that must be used like a muscle or a brain. And using it implies: changing the people at the helm. That’s training for the democratic muscle. It’s vital. An antidote to stagnancy, to cronyism, to indolence and sycophancy and opportunism.

Back in 1984, in my new home country, I learned about free elections for the first time. About liberty and freedom of speech (though – just to be on the safe side – I went through my hundred-odd drawings and rubbed out all stray red banners and Soviet stars and similar emblems with which I had adorned some tank here or some fighter jet there or some picture of the May Parade which we’d been obliged to scribble in kindergarten).

I settled in quickly. Maybe, I even developed a particular fondness of liberty and democracy, simply because I had some idea of how it is without.

Ironically, though, I had to wait until 1998 to actually witness that governments can change – not by illness and death but by vote. In 1998, sixteen years of the chancellorship of Helmut Kohl ended. Of a man who had many merits, no doubt, especially with regard to German reunification and to European integration. But hey: sixteen years!

There were and are Minister-Presidents of German Bundesländer (federal states) with similarly endless tenures. They are called »Landesvater« or »Landesmutter« (Father of the State or Mother of the State), and, sadly, this is not even meant sarcastically and still less as a criticism.

What does this imply as for our democratic muscle’s fitness?

Back to Ms Merkel: the other day, I read an article in the blog of a very leftist friend and was rather astonished to find the author address Ms Merkel as »our regent«. (And here too: no irony.) Regent! I found this quite telling. Not with respect to the author personally but regarding the mental picture of democracy of more and more people in our country – whether they reject or adore Merkel, they all seem to have forgotten that she is not omniscient, not omnipotent, not a regent, not a monarch, not a saint, not a tyrant, not a fairy queen.

Fortunately, there are parliaments, cabinets, undersecretaries, consultants of all types, mayors, town councils, judges, lawyers – and last but absolutely not least: the »ordinary« citizens without whom there would be no state and no government, no economy, no culture, no science, no health system, no food, nothing.

Like Kohl, Merkel has been in office for sixteen years. She’s only the third Bundeskanzler I’ve seen in all the years since 1984. Three Federal Chancellors in almost four decades! – You might call it stability, and many people do, but this would mean missing the actual foundation and source of stability in our democracy: our constitution and the strength and vitality of our constitutional organs. This is what we should treasure and keep a wary eye on and never change with ease. The spirit, not faces is what we must preserve!

The ramshackle Socialist workers’ paradises east of the Iron Curtain survived another seven or eight years without the irreplacable Brezhnev. And when they finally collapsed, they did so not because of too much fluctuation of personnel in the higher echelons or a general proneness to changing things. They collapsed because the foundation of their states was inhumane and rotten.

The head of government in our democracy might be a dull slouch, an aggressive zealot, an ingenious wizard but they’re limited in what they can neglect or damage – or achieve. And that’s a very, very good kind of mediocrity.

We should happily leave it at that.

Two things we know for certain: someone will be Germany’s next Bundeskanzler and the new Bundeskanzler’s name will not be Merkel. And the world will roll on.

Because in a democracy anyone can do the job. That’s the trick.