In power so long she has been dubbed Germany’s “eternal chancellor,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel today marks 15 years at the helm of Europe’s top economic power, with her popularity and public trust scaling new heights as her remaining time in office ticks down.
Merkel, 66, has said she would step down as chancellor when her current mandate runs out next year, and leave politics altogether.
Assuming she finishes out her fourth term, she will tie former German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s longevity record for a post-World War II leader, with an entire generation of young Germans never knowing another person at the top.
The brainy, pragmatic and unflappable Merkel has served for many in the past few years as a welcome counterbalance to the big, brash men of global politics, from US President Donald Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as liberals have looked to her as the “leader of the free world.”
A Pew Research Center poll last month showed large majorities in most Western countries having “confidence in Merkel to do the right thing regarding world affairs.”
A trained quantum chemist raised behind the Iron Curtain, Merkel has long been in sync with her electorate as a guarantor of stability and prosperity.
Her major policy shifts have reflected the wishes of a changing society — among them phasing out nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster — and shifted her Christian Democratic Union firmly to the political center.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, her boldest move — keeping open German borders in 2015 to more than 1 million asylum seekers — seemed set to determine her legacy.
The woman once known as the “climate chancellor” for pushing renewables, also faces a mass movement of young voters pressing her to make Germany meet its commitments.
She became Europe’s go-to leader during the eurozone crisis when Berlin championed swingeing spending cuts in return for international bailout loans for debt-mired countries.
Merkel, the EU’s and G7’s most senior leader, started as a contemporary of then-US president George W. Bush, then-British prime minister Tony Blair and then-French president Jacques Chirac when she became Germany’s youngest and first female chancellor in 2005.
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.
Her father moved the family to a small-town parish in the communist East Germany 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, Putin, who was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Merkel kept the name of her first husband, whom she married in 1977 and divorced five years later.
“My heritage shaped me, for example the longing for freedom during my life in the GDR [East Germany],” she said on the 30th anniversary of reunification.
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