Merkel, the eternal Chancellor now past her zenith

Angela Merkel has survived multiple crises but her obstacle-strewn path to a fourth term has prompted suggestions she is past her peak, leaving Germans to ponder life without the veteran chancellor.

Merkel, the eternal Chancellor now past her zenith
Photo: DPA

After 12 years at the helm of Europe's biggest economy, the leader who is often called the world's most powerful woman is facing a battle for her political survival – and all she can do is wait.

Her hope of forming a new government now lies with some 460,000 rank-and-file members of the centre-left Social Democrats, who will vote on whether to approve a hard-fought coalition deal hammered out with her conservative bloc.

Organising the postal ballot is slated to take around three weeks, prolonging the uncertainty that has dogged Germany and drained Merkel's influence since September's inconclusive general election.

Merkel's CDU/CSU alliance won those polls but scored its worst result since 1949, while the far-right made huge inroads capitalising on anger over her open-door refugee policy.

With Merkel locked in the longest period of coalition-building in Germany's postwar history, talk of “the erosion” of her power has dominated the headlines.

Even if the SPD hands the 63-year-old another stint as chancellor, commentators are predicting she will not serve a full four-year term, fuelling speculation about potential successors.

“Angela Merkel is past her zenith,” political analyst Oskar Niedermayer told the financial daily Handelsblatt last month.

If the SPD torpedoes her plans, Merkel faces the prospect of snap elections or heading an unstable minority government – anathema to the famously cautious and cerebral leader.

Polls suggest Germans are split down the middle on Merkel, with 51 percent saying they want her to stay on as chancellor.

Although her time in power is “obviously nearing its end”, Germans appear torn between “Merkel fatigue” and fear of change, Der Spiegel weekly wrote.

'Leader of free world'

Merkel may be down, but few are counting her out just yet.

During her long rule, the pastor's daughter raised behind the Iron Curtain has been derided as Europe's “austerity queen”, cheered as a saviour by refugees and hailed as the new “leader of the free world”.

In the turbulent times of US President Trump's rise to power, Brexit and multiple global crises, she was long seen as the bedrock in a country concerned with maintaining its enviable growth and employment rates.

Germans have thanked her by keeping her in power ever since she became their youngest and first female chancellor in 2005.

“Mutti” (Mummy) Merkel, with her pragmatic, modest and reassuringly bland style, seemed to have perfected the art of staying in power in a wealthy, ageing nation that tends to favour continuity over change.

Seemingly devoid of vanity and indifferent to the trappings of power, she lives in a Berlin flat with her media-shy scientist husband Joachim Sauer, shops in a local supermarket and spends holidays hiking in the Alps.

Though frequently criticised for sitting out tough challenges, Merkel has punctuated her reign with bold decisions – from scrapping nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, to opening German borders to more than a million asylum seekers since 2015.


Merkel was born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1954 in the northern port city of Hamburg.

Weeks later her father, a leftist Lutheran clergyman, moved the family to a small town in the communist East at a time when most people were headed the other way.

Biographers say life in a police state taught Merkel to hide her true thoughts behind a poker face.

Like most students, she joined the state's socialist youth movement but rejected an offer to inform for the Stasi secret police while also staying clear of risky pro-democracy activism.

A top student, she excelled in Russian, which would later help her keep up the dialogue with President Vladimir Putin. He was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

During that momentous upheaval, Merkel joined the nascent Democratic Awakening group. It later merged with the Christian Democrats (CDU) of then-chancellor Helmut Kohl, who fondly if patronisingly dubbed Merkel his “girl”.

Merkel's mentor was not the last politician to underestimate her and pay the price.

When Kohl became embroiled in a campaign finance scandal in 1999, Merkel openly urged her party to drop the self-declared “old warhorse”.

The move, which has been described as “Merkelvellian”, sparked her meteoric rise.

Before September's election she was seen as likely to exceed the 16-year reign of Kohl – but given her current struggles to build a new government, all bets are off.


Germany’s Schröder to remain in Social Democrats despite Putin ties

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will remain a member of the ruling Social Democrats (SPD), the party said Monday, finding his ties with Vladimir Putin did not breach its rules.

Germany's Schröder to remain in Social Democrats despite Putin ties

The SPD’s Hanover branch said Schröder, whose party membership falls under its umbrella, was “not guilty of a violation of the party rules, as no violation can be proven against him”.

The branch had opened a hearing in July to discuss 17 motions from local and regional chapters against Schroeder’s ongoing membership of the party.

The decision can be appealed, but legal experts say there are high hurdles for expelling members.

Schröder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005, has refused to turn his back on Putin despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

His stance has made him an embarrassment to the SPD, which is also the party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Social Democrats move to dispel Schröder over Putin ties

He has also been widely criticised for holding a number of lucrative posts at Russian energy giants, and it was only after much public pressure that Schröder in May gave up his seat on the board of Russian energy group Rosneft.

He later also announced he would not be joining Gazprom’s supervisory board as initially planned.

Germany’s parliament in May removed some of the perks Schröder was entitled to as an elder statesman, stripping him of an office and staff.

Schröder, 78, who was Angela Merkel’s immediate predecessor, has remained defiant and met with Putin in Moscow in July.

In an interview after the visit, he claimed Russia wanted a “negotiated solution” to the war – comments branded as “disgusting” by Ukrainian
President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Schröder has also called on Berlin to reconsider its position on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which stands completed but was blocked by the German government in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine.