(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, isn’t flashy and doesn’t use Twitter. Yet once she became Germany’s chancellor in 2005, every event that shook the European Union made her ever more its indispensable leader for more than a decade. Her fourth term, which began in early 2018, has raised questions about her power to influence events in Europe and even at home in Germany, where critics know her as “Mutti,” or “Mommy.” Merkel put her stamp on Europe and beyond defending moderation and liberal values that were increasingly coming under attack as nationalists gained power around the world. Much of her trouble stemmed from her decision not to shutter the German border to hundreds of thousands of refugees entering 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 late October, she said she would quit as head of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, and wouldn’t run for chancellor again when her term expires in 2021.
Merkel’s authority has been severely tested since a disappointing result in the 2017 federal 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. After the election, it took Merkel six months to piece together a governing coalition, which has been riven by infighting and suffered losses in regional ballots in October in Bavaria and Hesse. She insisted she intends to serve out her term as chancellor. But how long she’s able to hang on will depend on who wins the race to succeed her as party leader.
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, proved the biggest challenge to her stamina and political savvy.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake on Merkel’s decision not to run as party leader.
- 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.
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