In power so long she has been dubbed Germany’s “eternal chancellor”, Angela Merkel marked 15 years at the helm of Europe’s top economic power on Sunday with her popularity intact and public trust in her leadership reaching new heights.
Merkel, 66, has said she will step down as chancellor when her current mandate runs out in 2021 with plans to leave politics altogether.
As she finishes out her fourth term she will tie Helmut Kohl’s record for longest-serving post-war leader, leaving an entire generation of young Germans with no recollection of another chancellor.
Calls for her to stand for yet another mandate can now be heard, however, spurred by the confidence engendered by her steady handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in Germany, where infection levels and deaths have remained lower than those of most European partners.
The vast majority of Germans say they trust her “hammer and dance” strategy of tighter and looser restrictions based on rising or falling infection levels, a decision that she has called “among the most difficult decisions of my time in office”.
For many the pragmatic and unflappable Merkel has served as a welcome counterweight to some of the brash authoritarians and populists of global politics – from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to US President Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin in Russia – and many have looked to her as the true “leader of the free world” during the Trump era.
A Pew Research Center poll last month showed large majorities in most Western countries having “confidence in Merkel to do the right thing regarding world affairs”.
With the coronavirus crisis raging around the world, the pandemic has played to her strengths as a crisis manager with a head for science-based solutions. A trained quantum chemist raised behind the Iron Curtain, Merkel has long been in sync with her change-averse electorate as a guarantor of stability and prosperity.
Her major policy shifts have reflected the wishes of a changing society – among them phasing out nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster – and shifted her CDU party firmly to the political centre.
Merkel’s bold 2015 move to keep German borders open to more than 1 million asylum seekers seemed set to determine her legacy. Singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann said Merkel “showed the world the friendly face of human rationality” when she chose not to use “barbed wire, clubs, water cannon, machine guns and tanks to chase away thousands of desperate refugees on the German border”.
While many Germans were on board with the move, fears of an influx of immigration also emboldened a new far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has upended national politics.
Hard-line European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban accused her of “moral imperialism” with her welcoming stance.
And five years on, the European Union appears no closer to a unified policy on migration.
Time magazine named Merkel “Person of the year” in 2015, calling her “Europe’s most powerful leader” as she helped lead Europe through the Greek bankruptcy to the refugee crisis to the response to the November attacks in Paris. “Not once or twice but three times this year there has been reason to wonder whether Europe could continue to exist, not culturally or geographically but as a historic experiment in ambitious statecraft,” the magazine wrote. “… Each time Merkel stepped in.”
During the eurozone crisis Berlin championed spending cuts in return for international bailout loans for debt-mired countries. But angry protesters dubbed her Europe’s “austerity queen” and caricatured her in Nazi garb.
The woman once known as the “climate chancellor” for pushing renewable energy now faces a mass movement of young voters pressing her to make sure Germany meet its own climate commitments.
Merkel, now the EU’s and G7’s most senior leader, started as a contemporary of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac when she became Germany’s youngest – and first female – chancellor in 2005.
Born Angela Dorothea Kasner on July 17, 1954, in the port city of Hamburg, she was the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman and a school teacher. Her father moved the family to a small-town parish in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the East at a time when most people were headed the other way.
A top student, she excelled in mathematics and Russian, which has helped her maintain the dialogue with the other veteran on the world stage, Russia’s Putin, who was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Merkel kept the name of her first husband, whom she married in 1977 and divorced five years later.
“My heritage shaped me, for example, the longing for freedom during my life in the GDR,” she said on the 30th anniversary of reunification.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Merkel, who was working in a chemistry lab, joined a pro-democracy group that would merge with Kohl’s Christian Democrats. The Protestant from the East would later be elected leader of a party until then dominated by Western Catholic patriarchs.
Now, in turbulent times of multiple global crises, the post-Merkel period looks uncertain. A leadership battle has dragged on for months, prolonged by the coronavirus outbreak, with the outcome of Germany’s political future still highly unpredictable.