She has been called a “leader of the free world” as authoritarian populists marched in Europe and the United States, but Angela Merkel ends her historic 16 years in power with an uncertain legacy at home and abroad.
In office for so long that she has been dubbed Germany’s “eternal chancellor”, Merkel, 67, leaves with her popularity so resilient that she would likely have won a record fifth term if she had asked for it.
Instead, Merkel will pass the baton as the first German Chancellor to step down entirely by choice, with a whole generation of voters never knowing another person at the top.
Her supporters say she has provided stable and pragmatic leadership through countless global crises as a moderate, unifying figure.
Yet critics argue that a confused leadership style, anchored to the broadest possible consensus, lacked the bold vision to prepare Europe and its premier economy for decades to come.
What is certain is that it leaves behind a fractured political landscape. It is also because of the shadow she casts that her party’s candidate, Armin Laschet, has struggled to refine his own profile.
His Social Democratic opponent, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, actively presented himself – and perhaps successfully – as the real candidate for continuity.
Assuming she stays in power, Merkel will equal or exceed Helmut Kohl’s longevity record for a post-war leader, depending on how long the next coalition talks last.
– ‘Do the right thing’ –
The imperturbable Merkel has served for many years as a welcome counterweight to impetuous great men in world politics, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin.
A Pew Research Center poll this week showed that large majorities in most democracies around the world “trust Merkel to do the right thing in world affairs.”
However, the final days of her tenure were also marred by what Merkel called the “bitter, dramatic and terrible” return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan – a debacle for which she shares responsibility as Germany completed its evacuation.
A high-trained quantum chemist behind the Iron Curtain, Merkel has long been in tune with her electorate opposed to change as a guarantor of stability.
Its main policy changes reflected the wishes of large German majorities – including the gradual phasing out of nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 – and drew a broad new coalition of women and urban voters into the Formerly archi-conservative CDU.
– ‘Queen of austerity’ –
Before the coronavirus pandemic, his most daring decision – to keep Germany’s borders open in 2015 to more than a million asylum seekers – seemed to determine his legacy.
But while many Germans rallied around Merkel’s “We can do this” cry, the move also emboldened an anti-migrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), introducing a far-right bloc in parliament to the first time since WWII.
At the same time, diehard leaders such as Hungarian Viktor Orban accused her of “moral imperialism” with her welcoming stance.
Six years later, she lamented this month, the European Union does not seem any closer to a unified migration policy.
The woman once known as the ‘climate chancellor’ for pushing for renewable energy is also facing a mass movement of young activists claiming she has failed to address the climate emergency, the Germany not even meeting its own emission reduction commitments.
Merkel became Europe’s go-to leader during the eurozone crisis when Berlin defended sweeping spending cuts in return for international bailout loans for countries mired in debt.
Angry protesters have dubbed her Europe’s “austerity queen” and caricatured her in Nazi costume, while advocates give her credit for maintaining monetary union.
More recently, despite the missteps admitted in the coronavirus pandemic, including a slow rollout of the vaccine, the death toll in Germany has remained lower than that of many European partners relative to the population.
– Kohl’s “daughter” to “Mom” –
Merkel, the highest leader of the EU and G7, started as a contemporary of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac when she became the youngest and first female Chancellor of Germany in 2005.
She was born Angela Dorothea Kasner on July 17, 1954 in the port city of Hamburg, daughter of a Lutheran clergyman and a teacher.
His father moved the family to a parish in a small town in the Communist East at a time when tens of thousands were moving in the other direction.
She excelled in math and Russian, which helped her maintain a dialogue with fellow world veteran, Russian 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.
After the fall of the wall, Merkel, who worked in a chemistry lab, joined a pro-democracy group that was to merge with Kohl’s Christian Democrats.
The Protestant from the East that Kohl nicknamed her “daughter” would later be elected leader of a party until then dominated by Western Catholic patriarchs.
As she rose to power, the party’s rivals scornfully called her “Mutti” (Mum) behind her back, but she deftly – some have said ruthlessly – eliminated potential challengers.
Although her name is on wish lists for key EU or United Nations positions, Merkel has said she will quit politics altogether.
When asked on her last trip to Washington in June what she expected the most, she replied “not having to constantly make decisions.”
© 2021 AFP