From Kohl's 'girl' to 'Mutti': Germany's 'eternal' chancellor embarks on last lap

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From Kohl's 'girl' to 'Mutti': Germany's 'eternal' chancellor embarks on last lap
Angela Merkel in Essen after being elected as the new chairman of the CDU on April 10th, 2000. Photo: DPA

In power so long she has been dubbed Germany's "eternal chancellor", Angela Merkel's 13-year run as leader of Europe's top economy is heading for its final lap after a series of political crises and electoral debacles.


As we've reported, Merkel will step down as chancellor when her current mandate runs out in 2021, a party source told AFP on Monday, adding that she has no plans to seek a post in the European Commission following that despite speculation to that effect in Brussels.

Many liberals around the world may still hail the brainy, pragmatic and unflappable Merkel as a welcome counter-balance to the big, brash men of global politics, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin.

But at home, even a change-averse electorate has started to grow weary of the leader dubbed "Mutti" (Mummy) and the cautious and glacial style of consensus politics her coalition government is now associated with.

Merkel, 64, a trained scientist raised behind the Iron Curtain, long held the support of German voters as a guarantor of stability and prosperity, notably during the global financial crisis and eurozone turmoil.

Her major policy shifts have reflected the wishes of a changing society - among them phasing out nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster - and shifted her CDU firmly to the political centre.

But it was her boldest move, keeping open German borders in 2015 to a mass influx of refugees, that may have planted the seeds of her downfall.

The arrival of more than a million asylum seekers since has not only left a deep chasm in German society, it has also empowered a far-right party that has upended German politics.

'The right mistake' 

"Merkel chose not to use barbed wire, clubs, water cannon, machine guns and tanks to chase away thousands of desperate refugees on the German border," wrote her friend, the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann.

"Yes, it was a mistake. But it was the smaller, better mistake. The 'right' mistake," he wrote in The New York Times this year, adding that Merkel "showed the world the friendly face of human rationality".

In Germany, many begged to differ, especially the anti-immigration and anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose angriest rallying cry is "Merkel must go".

Today the AfD sits in the national Bundestag and every state assembly, having poached millions of votes from Merkel's big-party alliance, which has plummeted in the polls and suffered a string of defeats.

At the same time, the AfD's rise has prompted her conservative Bavarian allies CSU to champion hardline immigration policies, something that in turn sent moderate voters drifting to the centre-left Greens.


Merkel, now the EU's and G7's most senior leader, started as a contemporary of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac when she became Germany's youngest and first female chancellor in 2005.

Having only entered politics in her thirties, she would rise to regularly be labelled the world's most powerful woman.

Merkel was born Angela Dorothea Kasner on July 17, 1954 in the port city of Hamburg, the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman and a school teacher.

Three months later, her father moved the family to a small-town parish in the communist East at a time when most people were headed the other way.

A top student, she excelled in mathematics and Russian, which has helped her maintain the dialogue with the other veteran on the world stage, Russia's Putin, who was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

During that momentous upheaval, Merkel, who holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry and was working in a lab, joined a pro-democracy group that would merge with the Christian Democrats of chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Kohl fondly if patronisingly dubbed Merkel his "girl" and named her the minister for women and youth affairs, and later the environment.

When Kohl became embroiled in a campaign finance scandal in 1999, Merkel openly urged her party to drop the self-declared "old warhorse" and she took over as CDU leader in a manoeuvre that gave birth to the term "Merkelvellian".

 'Leader of free world'

Over the years, Merkel, with her pragmatic and cautious 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, enjoys watching football and spends holidays hiking in the Alps. 

Merkel had kept the name of her first husband, whom she married in 1977 and divorced five years later.

She became Europe's go-to leader during the eurozone crisis when Berlin championed tough reform and austerity measures in return for international bailout loans for indebted countries.

Protesters dubbed her Europe's "austerity queen" or caricatured her in Hitler garb and SS uniform.

In the turbulent times of Trump, Brexit and multiple global crises, Merkel came to be hailed abroad as the new "leader of the free world", a label she was quick to reject as "absurd".

As her troubles have multiplied since the migrant crisis, observers have asked whether Merkel, rather than be pushed out, will know when it is time to hand over the crown.

In October, she addressed the idea of a post-Merkel era, saying that attempts by Germany's outgoing leaders to anoint a successor "have always completely failed, and it's probably better that way".



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