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A steady hand and a tight purse

Merkel has earned credibility as a defender of liberal democracy in Europe

Gulf News

London: Hailed by outgoing US President Barack Obama as probably “my closest international partner”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has cultivated the image of a prudent and pragmatic leader. With the rise of populism in Europe and beyond, some see her as best placed to defend liberal democracy on the continent.

By running for a fourth term as chancellor, she aims to emulate Germany’s longest-running post-war leaders, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

But Merkel’s domestic popularity is not what it was, even though one poll suggested as many as 55 per cent of Germans want her to serve a fourth term.

Her decision to open the borders to refugees fleeing conflict in Syria in 2015 sparked a backlash. She stopped short of admitting she had made a mistake, but said “if I could, I would turn back the clock many years” to prepare better for the arrival of 890,000 asylum seekers, most of whom were not from Syria.

Her mantra that Germans would manage — “wir schaffen das” — was at the time widely praised, but has since been dropped. Germany’s conservative leader, 62, now aims to “do something for social cohesion” from the centre ground.

Born in Hamburg on July 17, 1954, Angela Kasner was only a couple of months old when her father, a Lutheran pastor, was given a parish in a small town in East Germany.

She grew up in a rural area outside Berlin in the Communist east, and earned a doctorate in physics, later working as a chemist at a scientific academy in East Berlin. She married fellow student Ulrich Merkel in 1977 but divorced four years later.

By 1989 she had become involved in the East’s burgeoning democracy movement in 1989 and, after the Berlin Wall came down, she got a job as East German government spokeswoman following the first democratic elections.

Two months before Germany’s reunification in 1990, she joined the CDU and the following year took the job of minister for women and youth under Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

When Kohl was caught in a slush fund scandal, she called for his resignation in 1999 and in 2000 was chosen to lead the CDU. She became Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005.

Early in her political career, she was seen as uncharismatic, provincial and rather dowdy, and tried to shake off that image with a series of bright, colourful outfits and a new hairstyle. She married chemistry professor Joachim Sauer in 1998.

Merkel’s first government was an uneasy “grand coalition” with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Then, between 2009 and 2013, she governed with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).

As Europe’s financial crisis bit, she became the symbol of fiscal austerity, prescribing sweeping budget cuts and tight supervision as the cure for southern Europe’s chronic debts.

Critics say her initial reluctance to resort to bailouts weakened the Eurozone’s credibility but as Germany became the biggest paymaster for the Eurozone bailouts, so Merkel too became the driving force behind the EU’s efforts to restore confidence in the euro.

Germany’s resilience, low unemployment and healthy export success for years boosted her popularity at home, where she was widely seen as a safe pair of hands in tough times.

In 2013, her FDP coalition partner failed to win a single seat, leading Merkel to return to a coalition with the SPD.

Her attitude to austerity eventually softened. In a BBC interview in June 2013, she argued that Europe needed more labour mobility to tackle unemployment, with more young people seeking jobs in other EU countries.

Despite some resistance in the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, she has agreed to more left-leaning measures such as a minimum wage in some sectors and abandoning nuclear power.

As late as July 2015, the chancellor was seen by some as insensitive when she tried to comfort a girl who had been waiting for years for residence in Germany.

But as the number of new arrivals grew, Angela Merkel took the lead in opening Germany’s borders, temporarily suspending an EU rule requiring asylum seekers to register in the first member state they entered.

She was feted at the United Nations for her humanitarian stance and Time magazine lionised her as its person of the year and de facto leader of the European Union.

The message that “we will manage it” was taken on board by millions of Germans.

But not everyone was happy with the open-door policy and the populist, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) was spearheading opposition to it.

In September 2016, the AfD pushed her CDU into third place in regional elections in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

What began as anti-Islam marches in the eastern cities of Leipzig and Dresden was becoming mainstream.

Sexual assaults by migrants on New Year revellers in Cologne and then Islamist attacks in Germany during the summer all dented the chancellor’s popularity.

And yet, she is still seen as the candidate most likely to return to the chancellery and the CDU is still well ahead in the opinion polls.

The CDU has several rising stars but as Merkel sees it, she has a duty to serve when faced with “struggles in Europe and internationally for our values and our interests and, simply put, for our way of life”.

The reality for her party is that none of the potential candidates appear ready to take on her job, in what she describes as “distinctly difficult, even insecure times”.

Barack Obama said in Berlin that if he were German he might support her.

However, her air of invincibility is long gone. As the chancellor herself said, “this election will be difficult, like no other election since reunification”.

— Compiled from agencies, BBC