Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, isn’t flashy and doesn't use Twitter. But since she became Germany's chancellor in 2005, every event that has shaken the European Union has made her ever more its indispensable leader. Merkel’s about to begin her fourth term, but her difficulties in getting there have raised questions about her power to influence events in Europe and in Germany, where critics know her as “Mutti,’’ or “Mommy.” Much of her trouble stems from her decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country in 2015 and 2016, rebuffing opposition by declaring the move a moral and political imperative. It was a sharp departure from her usual cautious mantra of solving problems “step by step,’’ and it cost her at the polls.
In the September election, the party bloc led by Merkel took its lowest share of the vote since 1949 despite a booming economy. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, known as AfD, surged into parliament with 12.6 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest force. It is the first far-right party since 1953 with seats in the lower house, the Bundestag. The discontent over migration also hurt Merkel’s chief challenger, Martin Schulz, and his party, the Social Democrats (SPD), which notched up a post-war low of 20 percent. Merkel first tried to yoke together two strange bedfellows, the pro-business Free Democrats and the environmentalist Green Party. Then she and Schulz and agreed to rebuild their old coalition, hammering out a governing blueprint that calls for Germany and France to bolster the European Union. The deal was approved by the Social Democrats’ rank and file in early March, clearing the way for Merkel to begin what most of the German political world expects to be her final term.
Merkel was born in 1954 in Hamburg, but her family moved to communist East Germany when she was an infant. She wasn’t a dissident but says she rebuffed recruiters from the Stasi, the secret police. On the night the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Merkel had continued with her routine of a weekly sauna, only later joining a crowd pushing its way over a bridge to West Berlin. Merkel had been working as a laboratory physicist but was swept up in the euphoria of democracy and at age 35 ended up aligned with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union, puzzling friends who considered her apolitical. She advanced when Kohl saw a need for an East German woman in his first post-unity Cabinet. In 1999, she broke with her mentor when he was rocked by a finance scandal, and was elected party chairwoman. Her chance came when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called early elections in response to unpopular economic and labor reforms. Merkel squeaked through to become Germany’s leader in November 2005. But her 2013 victory was the biggest up to that time for any party since reunification in 1990.
There’s been a common thread in actions by Merkel as disparate as browbeating Greece into accepting tough conditions for aid or opening her country to asylum seekers in need: that Germany set an example of holding behavior to high standards. Critics, however, say that her actions on the economy and immigration have helped fuel the rise of those who want to pull back from integration, by prolonging Europe’s economic malaise and feeding fears of terrorism. Merkel has made a career of defying expectations and making surprise shifts, including Germany’s exit from nuclear power after the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan. The rejection of her leadership by hundreds of thousands of conservative voters, many of whom swung to the AfD, is perhaps the biggest challenge yet to her stamina and political savvy.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg journalists Alan Crawford and Tony Czuczka explored Merkel’s rise and values in the 2013 biography “Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis.”
- A January 2018 analysis by Czuczka of what the coalition talks mean about Merkel and Germann politics.
- In December 2015, Time magazine named Merkel its Person of the Year.
- A German government website’s slideshow of Merkel since childhood.
- A profile in the New Yorker magazine.
First published March 5, 2015
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John O'Neil at firstname.lastname@example.org