After eight years, Germans are embracing Angela Merkel as never before.
Merkel, the first female German chancellor and the first from the formerly communist east, won over more of the electorate than in either of her two previous victories. She became the first German incumbent to increase their share since Helmut Schmidt’s re-election in 1980, a result that not even Helmut Kohl could claim in the wake of reunification.
“She conveys reliability, stability, consistency,” said Daniel Hamilton, head of the Center for Transatlantic Studies in Washington, who has met Merkel several times. She evokes “emotion among German people that’s reassuring” and conveys a message of “no experiments” at a time when most other European economies look more troubled than Germany’s.
Merkel’s mandate illustrates her success in pulling along a German public opposed to aiding weaker euro-area nations with a self-styled “step-by-step” response to the debt crisis that infuriated allies. Merkel led her Christian Democrats to 41.5 percent of the vote, according to official results released early today, the party bloc’s biggest share in 23 years.
The vote confirmed polls showing Germans trust her leadership, backing her austerity-first response to the debt crisis and crediting her for economic gains. In the campaign, Merkel touted unemployment that fell to a two-decade low on her watch, progress toward a balanced budget and the euro’s advantages for Germany’s export-driven economy.
Merkel, 59, will need an ally to govern as projections suggest she fell short of a majority in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. Securing a third-term coalition would allow her to beat Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years in power in the U.K. and Tony Blair’s 10. Kohl made it through 16 years, making him the longest-serving post-World War II German leader.
Neither Thatcher nor Blair completed their third terms. Even Kohl overcame a party revolt before unification gave him a second political life.
“A third term will be the hardest for Merkel,” Ulrich Sarcinelli, a political scientist at the University of Koblenz-Landau, said by phone. “Questions will arise about who becomes her heir-apparent and what her Christian Democratic Union stands for as a party. As soon as her approval ratings decline, she will also come under pressure within her party.”
Merkel’s personal strengths with voters include her “totally unpretentious” style and that she “analyzes problems” rather than seeking out “the grand design,” Christine Lieberknecht, a Christian Democratic Union party ally who is state premier of Thuringia, said in an interview. “She speaks with people eye-to-eye and they appreciate that. Yet at the same time, she’s the most powerful woman in the world.”
Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter who excelled in school, was working as a researcher in a state physics lab when East Germany opened its border to the West on Nov. 9, 1989. Soon after, she walked into the office of a pro-democracy group to help set up personal computers. Within months, she was deputy spokeswoman for East Germany’s first and last freely elected government, where she came to the attention of CDU envoys. When East and West Germany merged and Kohl won the first post-unity election, he gave her a cabinet post.
A political outsider, Merkel honed her ambition to succeed as an eastern woman in a party dominated by West German men. In one of her boldest moments, she broke with Kohl over a party financing scandal in 2000. When Thatcher died in April, Merkel eulogized her as an advocate of freedom for the former Soviet bloc and an example for women striving for elected office.
Merkel, whose second husband is a fellow scientist, allowed other personal glimpses during the campaign. At an event in May sponsored by “Brigitte,” a women’s magazine, she talked about unwinding “when I stir the pot on the stove” and how “nice eyes” make men attractive.
Still missing is a Kohl-like vision for Germany and Europe. While Merkel has suggested she may try to reclaim national powers for Germany from the European Union level, she hasn’t spelled out a plan. It’s a point that was criticized by Peer Steinbrueck, her Social Democratic challenger and first-term finance minister.
He said Merkel simply refuses to spend political capital.
‘On the Line’
“Was there ever a time when Merkel said she won’t just wait and observe and instead says: ‘I’m putting my chancellorship on the line,’” Steinbrueck said.
Those moments may come during a third Merkel term. Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble acknowledged during the campaign that Greece may need a third bailout as early as next year, while declining to speculate on an amount. “When I know what something costs, then I will say it,” she said during a round table interview with other top candidates after polls closed yesterday.
Germany’s energy overhaul is another political and economic risk as subsidies for wind and solar power jack up electricity prices for homes and industry. The energy blueprint came after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 prompted Merkel to reverse course and back a nuclear-free Germany. That aligned her with most voters.
Merkel says changing Germany’s renewable-energy law will be her first priority in a third term. That still leaves the task of modernizing the power grid, a project she calls a matter of national pride, ingenuity and profit.
Also unfinished is the debt crisis and plans for a European banking union, where Germany has balked at calls by the European Commission and European Central Bank to set up a centralized system for winding down banks.
Bild, Germany’s most-read newspaper, reported in April that Merkel had told confidants that 10 years is the most a chancellor can stand, signaling she wouldn’t serve out her term if re-elected. She denied the report and repeated in a ZDF television panel interview last night that she plans to serve a full four-year term until 2017.
Numerous heirs-apparent, such as former Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen and Roland Koch, the former state premier of Hesse state who left politics to become chief executive officer of builder Bilfinger SE, have dropped out during Merkel’s 13 years as CDU head, felled by lost power struggles or scandal.
One possible successor is Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a mother of seven who lived in the U.S. during the 1990s and irked Merkel by saying euro countries should put up gold as collateral for bailouts. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was premier of Lower Saxony state. Others include Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Merkel’s former chief of staff.
After eight years in power, Merkel’s legacy includes her decision, hatched over months and announced almost off-hand in a radio interview, to stamp out talk of a Greek exit from the euro and avoid a breakup of the 17-nation currency. She abolished the military draft, expanded day care and, taking up a classic Social Democratic theme, pushed through minimum-wage rules for temporary and construction workers.
While Die Welt newspaper calls her the “Iron Chancellor,” Merkel is no Thatcher, differing from the “Iron Lady” in her mistrust of financial markets, her pick-and-choose approach to ties with the U.S. and preference for pragmatism over ideology.
“Merkel’s weak point is the energy overhaul,” Sarcinelli said. “That could become the toughest test of a third term.”