Chancellor Angela Merkel is riding high for her 60th birthday and it’s not just because Germany won the World Cup.
With no successor in sight after almost nine years in office, Merkel is the country’s most popular politician and the longest-serving leader among Group of Seven nations. While she doesn’t want to overstay her welcome with German voters after her re-election last year, she’s leaving the door open to a bid for a fourth term in 2017, according to a person familiar with Merkel’s thinking who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.
At her public birthday bash in Berlin today, Merkel signaled she isn’t done yet.
“I’m told I shouldn’t rest on anything,” she told the roughly 1,000 invited guests, including top officials of her governing coalition. “I’ll take that to heart. There’s one thing I’ve noticed about myself: I have, at least so far, incredible curiosity.”
Merkel’s treat for the soiree was a lecture by a German academic on globalization, a theme she returns to repeatedly in speeches urging Europe to raise its game and become more competitive. Though she never puts it this way, her message is Europe needs to become a little more like Germany.
“Her approval ratings can’t get any higher,” Manfred Guellner, who heads Forsa, a Berlin polling company, said in an interview. Images of Merkel hugging Germany’s world-champion soccer players after the World Cup final in Brazil are an added bonus that shows “she empathizes with people,” he said.
Such popularity has pitfalls. It’s leading to speculation by politicians and media about whether Merkel will groom a successor and quit while she’s ahead rather than risk going out with an election defeat.
She has told aides that she doesn’t want to end up like Helmut Kohl, her political mentor, whom Germans voted out after 16 years as chancellor in 1998 when he was 68, according to two people with direct knowledge of the conversations.
Merkel turned 60 while attending a meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels, prompting a German reporter to sing “Happy Birthday” at her post-summit news conference early this morning. “I should have joined in, then it would have been better,” Merkel said with a grin. “But thank you.” Her EU peers toasted her with sparkling wine and flowers, she said.
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Kohl urged Merkel to promote “a united Europe” and defend the stability of the euro, according to a letter published in Bild newspaper today. “When you look back today, you can do so in the knowledge that you made use of the opportunities in your eventful life,” he said in the letter.
For now, Merkel is quashing any suggestion that she’ll cut her third term short.
Her government denied a report in a Luxembourg newspaper in May that she wanted to become UN secretary-general when the post opens up in January 2017, about eight months before Germany’s next regularly scheduled national election. Asked again by a German television interviewer on July 12, Merkel said: “That definitely won’t happen.”
Merkel tops the latest Infratest poll with an approval rating of 71 percent. Her Christian Democratic bloc, which she led to the biggest election victory since 1990 in September, has as much as 41 percent voter support in national polls, with the Social Democrats, her junior coalition partner, at 23 percent to 26 percent.
With approval ratings that her European peers can’t match and influence boosted by Germany’s economic power during the debt crisis, Merkel has reasons to keep going. While she’s criticized in Europe and the U.S. for cautious crisis management and enforcing fiscal discipline, those policies are popular at home. So is standing up to the U.S. for allegedly running spies in German government offices.
“I don’t see anyone who could replace her right now,” Herfried Muenkler, a political scientist at Humboldt University, said in a talk with foreign reporters in Berlin on July 8. “In Europe’s current constellation, Merkel does really well with her unassuming, unheroic leadership style.”
Possible successors include Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a Christian Democratic politician’s daughter, and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, who knows Merkel from her earliest days in politics after the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago.
Though both have held cabinet posts in all three Merkel governments since 2005, she hasn’t publicly anointed either -- nor anyone else. About a quarter of Germans would even like Merkel to be in power for another decade, according to a Forsa poll for Stern magazine taken days before the World Cup final.
A physicist who grew up under Communism in East Germany, Merkel rose through the Christian Democratic Union’s ranks under Kohl after East and West Germany reunited in 1990. She broke with Kohl after his election defeat and became the party’s head in 2000, the springboard to winning the chancellorship on her first try five years later.
Merkel and pizzazz don’t mix and her birthday was no exception. The chancellor’s gift to herself was a speech at CDU headquarters by Juergen Osterhammel, a University of Koblenz historian. Merkel read his latest book on globalization, “The Transformation of the World,” according to one of her aides.
Merkel probably has to decide within a year whether she’ll seek another term or hand over the reins, Muenkler said.
“The pressure by supporters and party members who fear for their political office could get so intense that she couldn’t step aside,” said Guellner, the pollster. “She would have to run again, even if she doesn’t want to.”