Angela Merkel has watched the Germans go through crisis after crisis. Now they wonder who will fill the void

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(CNN) – Angela Merkel has been struck off several times during her career – by the politician’s rivals, members of her own party and, yes, the press.

It’s hard to imagine today, as the much-respected German Chancellor is set to step down after more than 15 years in high-level positions, but early in her career, Merkel was regularly belittled and despised, even by those who were meant to be. his side.

The protege of the then Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Merkel was known to him as “mein Maedel” – “my daughter”.

“She has always been underestimated by her enemies and by other politicians, and when they realized that a woman from the East is capable of playing this power game, it was too late,” Ralph Bollmann, author of Merkel’s authoritative biography “Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and Her Time,” CNN said.

The media only added to this feeling that Merkel was not a serious political candidate.

In one of her first media appearances as the new leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Berlin in 2001, Merkel appeared out of her depth.

Uncomfortable in front of the bright lights and the cameras of the press kit, she seemed unsure of where to look or what to do with her hands, and gave flat and boring answers to reporters’ questions. In further discussion, many journalists (mostly men) present agreed: This woman would never be chancellor.

But what did they know? Merkel won four terms, making her one of the oldest chancellors in German history – only Kohl, the mentor she ultimately turned her back on, served longer in the modern era.

Two decades later, she solidified her position as a senior stateswoman, having led her nation – indeed some would say Europe as a whole – through a series of potentially devastating crises.

Repeatedly named the most powerful woman in the world, Merkel has also played a crucial role on the international stage, helping to manage the global financial crisis, the refugee crisis and the war in Ukraine.

As Germany prepares to go to the polls this weekend to elect a new government, and by extension her successor, it is unclear whether one of those lining up to replace her – Armin Laschet from Merkel’s own CDU, the center-left Socialist Party (Olaf Scholz from the SPD) or Annalena Baerbock from the Greens will take over.

Bollmann says Merkel’s continued leadership will be sadly missed by the world: “I think there is one thing in common in Germany and abroad: she is seen as a guarantor of stability. In the future, many people will see this time as a time – perhaps the last time – of stability. “

“Do not be mistaken”

Merkel, 67, grew up under communism in East Germany and trained in science, earning a doctorate in quantum chemistry before entering politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She won a seat in the Bundestag, the German parliament, in the first elections after reunification.

In the years that followed, Merkel would not only become Germany’s first female Chancellor, but would also change the country’s policy for good.

Yet when the CDU won the German election in 2005 – by just 1% – it was widely seen to have happened despite Merkel’s perceived weaknesses, and not because of her.

Appearing on the TV show “The Elephant Round”, after the close vote of 2005, outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder appeared contemptuous of Merkel, scoffing at the idea that she would be able to form a governing coalition.

“She will not succeed in forming a coalition with my Social Democratic Party,” he said. “Do not be mistaken.”

Merkel held her tongue but continued to do just that, patiently biding her time before working to form a so-called “grand coalition” between the two biggest parties – the CDU and the SPD – and in so doing, ending to Schroeder’s political career. . The imperturbable and impassive Merkel had triumphed.

“There are a lot of things she learned from her youth (…) in the GDR, in communism, because she had to hide her true opinions, to say nothing (…).

The early years of Merkel’s chancellery were largely uneventful. The German economy has slowly grown after years of stagnation. But in 2008, when the Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed and the world seemed to be heading into an economic abyss, Germans feared their export-dependent nation was going downhill.

It was then that Merkel took the reins, becoming the country’s crisis manager.

On October 5, 2008, she told the Germans: “Your savings are safe, the federal government guarantees it. His calm and reassuring words helped avert a run on the banks and marked the start of a period of confidence in the face of adversity for Germany, led by Merkel.

His government launched a short-term labor program, known as “Kurzarbeit”, which helped companies keep their employees on staff by making them work fewer hours, while the government supplemented their income.

The program cost around 6 billion euros, according to the Federal Employment Agency, but it helped Germany avoid mass unemployment and gave German companies an advantage once the economy global recovery, as they retained their skilled workforce.

By the time the Greek debt crisis hit in 2012, the Germans trusted their Chancellor, confident that she could handle adversity.

Merkel took matters into her own hands, creating giant funds to save not only the economy of Greece, but also those of other debt-ridden eurozone countries. Although Greece and other countries criticized what they saw as the draconian terms of their bailouts, Merkel likely saved the single currency.

“Europe will fail if the euro fails. Europe wins if the euro wins,” Merkel told the German Bundestag in 2012.

“She has led Germany, Europe and in some parts the rest of the world through an era of crises – great crises – that we never thought we could happen in a Western democracy,” said Bollmann.

But while Merkel is seen as a daring and accomplished crisis manager, critics say she risked alienating the conservative electoral base of her own party, the CDU, by taking center-left positions on key issues. such as nuclear power, foreign policy and immigration. .

Merkel’s government initially halted Germany’s planned exit from nuclear power, but she reversed that decision following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. The decision was popular with the left, but not necessarily among supporters of the CDU.

“Angela Merkel’s phenomenon is essentially leading from behind,” said Julian Reichelt, editor-in-chief of Germany’s largest daily tabloid newspaper, the right-wing BILD. “You see where the people are going and you follow the masses, you don’t lead the masses. She was brilliant at doing that.”

The same was often true in foreign policy, which saw Germany’s role shrink, compared to the Schroeder years.

“Germany is certainly hitting below its weight when it comes to foreign policy,” Reichelt told CNN. Angela Merkel tried to ignore as much as possible all the major conflicts and issues in the world. She was one of the champions of ignoring all the issues that were so obvious in Afghanistan and which would obviously hit us after the withdrawal . “

Arguably Merkel’s most publicized moment of international leadership came in the summer of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them displaced by the civil war in Syria, made their way to Europe.

While many of her fellow European Union leaders have spoken out in favor of trying to keep the masses out of the bloc, Merkel felt the moment called for a huge humanitarian response.

“Germany is a strong country. We have accomplished so much, we can do it!” Merkel said at a press conference in 2015, opening her country’s doors to refugees. “We’re going to handle this, and if anything stands in the way, it has to be overcome.”

Germany eventually took in around 1.2 million refugees over the next year and a half.

Hajo Funke, professor at Freie University in Berlin, believes that opening up Germany and Europe to the influx of people in need has been one of the greatest humanitarian acts in German history . “It was the golden hour of democracy after World War II. That’s the legacy: to be non-nationalist,” Funke told CNN.

Following Merkel’s call to action, many Germans greeted asylum seekers with food and clothing; some opened their homes to those who had made the arduous journey, or helped them find work.

But the magic of the moment finally wore off. The integration of newcomers has been a delicate task, according to some critics, has been mismanaged.

Her handling of the refugee crisis dented Merkel’s popularity at home and helped fuel the rise of far-right political forces, including the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD became the first far-right group elected to the Bundestag since 1961. It came third in the 2017 elections, with 12.6% of the vote.

As Merkel won another term as Chancellor, her party’s poor performance in local elections convinced her that it was time for a change; in 2018, she announced that she would cede leadership of the CDU and that she would not stand for re-election in 2021.

But a new crisis soon arrived.

In early 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Merkel was one of the first world leaders to recognize the scale of the health threat posed by the coronavirus.

“Since German unification, no, since World War II, there has been no challenge for our nation that required us to act in solidarity with each other,” she said.

Under his leadership, Germany quickly implemented a strict lockdown, reinstated the “Kurzarbeit” program to protect the economy and helped start the search for a vaccine.

Merkel’s handling of the pandemic has seen her popularity soar, as Germans have once again come to appreciate the stubborn determination of their often underestimated leader.

Some doubt that those queuing to take her place as chancellor match their predecessor.

“The question is: who is going to replace (Merkel) and will this person have the same charisma and the same abilities as her?” Ben Schreer of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) asked in an interview with CNN earlier this week. “The allies are skeptical, and the Germans too are quite cautious in this regard.”

Laschet, Scholz and Baerbock can perhaps take comfort in the fact that pundits and politicians also doubted Merkel’s abilities.

As the politician who has arrived on the scene as an inexperienced “Maedchen” prepares to leave the world stage, voters in Germany wonder who will fill the void left by the woman they have come to know affectionately under the name of “Mutti”: the mother of the nation.

This story first appeared on CNN.com Angela Merkel has watched the Germans go through crisis after crisis. Now they wonder who will fill the void


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