Germany’s “eternal chancellor” Angela Merkel turns 15 in office

With power for as long as she has been called Germany’s eternal chancellor, Angela Merkel marked 15 years at the helm of Europe’s best economic power on Sunday with her popularity intact and public confidence that her leadership had reached new heights.

Merkel, 66, has said she will step down as chancellor when her current term expires in 2021 with plans to leave politics altogether.

When she ends her fourth term, she will break Helmut Kohl’s record for the longest-serving post-war leader and leave a whole generation of young Germans without remembering another chancellor.

The calls for another mandate can now be heard, but are encouraged by the confidence created by her steady handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in Germany, where infection rates and deaths have been lower than most European partners.

The vast majority of Germans say they trust her “hammer and dance” strategy for tighter and looser restrictions based on rising or falling levels of infection, a decision she has called “among the most difficult decisions of my time in office”.

Political counterweight

For many, the pragmatic and incomplete Merkel has served as a welcome counterweight to some of the fiercest authorities and populists in global politics – from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to US President Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin in Russia – and many have viewed her as the true “leaders of the free world” during the Trump era.

A poll by the Pew Research Center last month showed that large majorities in most Western countries had “confidence in Merkel to do the right thing in world affairs.”

With the coronavirus crisis raging around the world, the pandemic has played to her strengths as a crisis manager with her head for scientific solutions. A trained quantum chemist who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, Merkel has long been in sync with her willingness to change as a guarantor of stability and prosperity.

Her major political changes have reflected the wishes of a changing society – including the decommissioning of nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 – and have firmly moved her CDU party to the political center.

Merkel’s brave 2015 move to keep the German borders open to more than 1 million asylum seekers seemed set to determine her legacy. Singer Wolf Biermann said Merkel “showed the world the friendly face of human rationality” when she chose not to use “barbed wire, clubs, water cannons, machine guns and tanks to chase away thousands of desperate refugees at the German border”.

While many Germans were on board with the move, fears of an influx of immigrants also encouraged a new right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has elevated national politics.

Tough European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban accused her of “moral imperialism” with her welcoming stance.

And after five years, the European Union does not seem closer to a uniform migration policy.

From crisis to crisis

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 of the refugee crisis in response to the November attacks in Paris. “Not once or twice but three times this year, there has been reason to wonder whether Europe can continue to exist, not culturally or geographically but as a historical experiment in ambitious statecraft,” the newspaper wrote. “… Every time Merkel went in.”

During the eurozone crisis, Berlin advocated cuts in exchange for international rescue loans to debt-conscious countries. But angry protesters called her the “queen of austerity” and caricatured her in Nazi clothing.

The woman who was once called the “climate chancellor” to push for renewable energy is now facing a mass movement of young voters who are pushing her to ensure that Germany fulfills its own climate commitments.

Merkel, now the leading leader of the EU and G7, began 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 priest and a schoolteacher. Her father moved the family to a small town sock in the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the east at a time when most were heading the other way.

A top student, she excelled in mathematics and Russian, which has helped her maintain 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 legacy, for example, shaped my 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 worked in a chemistry laboratory, joined a pro-democracy group that would unite with Kohl’s Christian Democrats. The Protestant from the East would later be elected leader of a party until it was dominated by Western Catholic patriarchs.

Now, in turbulent times with several global crises, the period after Merkel looks uncertain. A leadership struggle has been going on for several months, extended by the coronavirus outbreak, with the outcome of Germany’s political future still very unpredictable.

( Jowharwith AFP)