BERLIN – Long dubbed the “Queen of Europe” by the media, Germany’s veteran Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged as the bruised survivor of her deepest crisis to govern for what many expect will be her final term.
After 12 years at the helm of Europe’s top economy, the pastor’s daughter, widely regarded as the world’s most powerful woman, goes on to live another day after post-war Germany’s longest stretch of coalition haggling.
If she indeed serves out her fourth four-year term, the 63-year-old could match or surpass the marathon tenure of her late mentor, Germany’s “reunification chancellor” Helmut Kohl.
Some observers doubt she will stay in power that long. Many voters have grown wary of “Mutti” (“Mummy”, as she is known) and there is widespread talk that she is entering the “twilight” of her reign.
Merkel’s deep woes are the price she paid for an uncharacteristically bold move – opening Germany’s borders to a mass influx of refugees that has brought more than one million asylum seekers to Germany since 2015.
The humanitarian act made her a liberal hero to many but also sparked a xenophobic backlash that propelled the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose battle cry is “Merkel must go”.
When the AfD entered Germany’s parliament last September, it shattered a taboo against extremists sitting in the Bundestag, while the serial election winner Merkel slunk away with her party’s worst result since 1949.
Although no-one within her Christian Democrats has dared openly to challenge her for the top job, political analyst Oskar Niedermayer said it is clear that “Angela Merkel is past her zenith”.
‘LEADER OF FREE WORLD’
Raised behind the Iron Curtain, Merkel has weathered multiple crises during her long time in power. Protesters dubbed her Europe’s “austerity queen” for her tough stance on debt-hit eurozone economies.
Some demonstrators branded her a Nazi in their fury.
In the turbulent times of US President Donald Trump, Brexit and multiple global crises, she came to be hailed abroad as a defender of liberal democracy.
Germans have long seen her as the bedrock of stability and enviable growth and jobs rates. They have thanked her by keeping her in government ever since she became their youngest and first female chancellor in 2005, a contemporary of Tony Blair and George W. Bush.
Merkel, with her pragmatic and modest 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 some bold decisions, including scrapping nuclear power after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Merkel was born Angela Dorothea Kasner on July 17, 1954 in the port city of Hamburg.
Soon after, her father, a Lutheran clergyman, moved the family to a small-town parish 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.
A top student, she excelled in Russian, which would later help her keep up the often tough 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 a group that soon merged with the Christian Democrats of 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 one analyst described as “Merkelvellian”, sparked her meteoric rise.
A float at this year’s carnival in Dusseldorf showed Merkel as a black widow spider standing on the bones of her former rivals and challengers, with the sign “Next please!”
Many observers are asking whether Merkel, rather than be pushed out, will know when it is time to hand over the crown.
When she recently picked regional politician Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as general secretary of her party, most observers read it as Merkel anointing a successor.