Berlin (TeleSUR) – In power for 12 years, the German Chancellor is one of Europe’s most successful politicians, and at times, one of the most controversial.
Several women are running as their parties’ leaders in Germany’s election on September 24.
But only one has been there before.
Angela Merkel is Europe’s longest serving leader, first elected as the German Chancellor in 2005.
The 63-year-old leader of the center right Christian Democratic Union, CDU, has lost none of her power in the intervening years and is now standing for her fourth successive term in office.
For many media commentators, she remains an enigma, full of contradictions.
But political insiders insist they understand how she has achieved her longevity.
They say she is ultimately, a consummate politician.
Merkel knows how politics works and how to make it work for her, even if that sometimes leaves her exposed to criticism.
The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she grew up in a small town in East Germany. She gained a doctorate in physics and worked for a time as a chemist. After a job in the East German government, she moved to the CDU and succeeded in becoming the party’s first woman leader before her election win 12 years ago.
Her most controversial stance was during the Europe’s economic crisis.
When her own country faced a severe downturn in 2011, Merkel unveiled the largest package of austerity measures in the country’s history, with deep cuts in social welfare programs and the public sector.
She said she had no choice if the nation was to weather the financial storm.
The following year, she applied the same tough rules to a southern neighbour.
Merkel resolutely insisted that no more aid would be given to debt-stricken Greece in 2012. Some other European Union countries were in favor.
But she insisted on a policy of not a penny more.
In July 2015, a Greek bailout agreement was reached in Brussels.
As Greece’s parliament prepared to vote on the financial rescue package worth over US$100 billion over the next three years, more than a hundred members of the ruling Syriza party said Athens had only accepted the deal because its creditors – especially Germany – had threatened “immediate financial strangulation” if there was any resistance.
Syriza laid the blame firmly at Merkel’s door.
Saddling Greece with harsh austerity measures in exchange for a deal was said to have been the chief work of the delegates from Berlin.
A campaign to boycott German products started spreading on social media shortly afterwards and the German publication Spiegel Online said “The German government destroyed seven decades of post-war diplomacy in a single weekend.”
It did dent Merkel’s image but she was soon to claw it back in a move at the height of the refugee crisis in the same year.
For months, horrifying scenes of people escaping across the Mediterranean in overloaded makeshift boats from conflict and discrimination in North Africa and beyond, filled Europe’s news.
As the deaths escalated from hundreds to thousands, the pressure was mounting on European leaders.
In August, Merkel declared that all Syrian asylum-seekers would be welcome to stay in Germany – no matter which E.U. country they had first entered – by suspending the 1990 agreement known as the Dublin Protocol.
Merkel spoke of an “exceptional situation” which “is not going to end soon.”
The rise of a new far right party, the Alternative for Germany, AfD, challenged her stance and started to win some public support.
This had an affect on her policy as the German-American sociologist and journalist, Gregory Wilpert, told teleSUR, “At first it was fairly progressive, in that Germany allowed over 800,000 refugees to enter the country in 2015. However, since then they have drastically reduced that number, largely in reaction to the successes of the AfD.”
“Also, her policy did little to help the refugees integrate into the country, which contributed towards hardships for them and to xenophobia among Germans and the rise of the AfD. In other words, her policy had some progressive aspect to it at first, but that’s no longer the case.”
In another example of her ability to play both hands, Merkel abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote on using force against Libya in 2011.
But she is not a peacenik.
Under her leadership, the government has pledged to lift overall German defence spending from 1.2 percent of GDP to 2 percent in line with its NATO commitments.
Merkel repeated the promise at her recent meeting with Trump, who has argued that the U.S.’s European partners — and especially Germany — spend too little on their defence and rely too much on the U.S.
Her relationship with Trump has been described as frosty. They diverge over the Paris Climate Deal and their body language at recent meetings has been icy compared to the warmth of her discussions with his predecessor Barack Obama.
But ever the pragmatist, Merkel appears to have overcome their differences.
Speaking at a recent event the chancellor called for the E.U. to keep working with Washington, saying: “There is a large amount of overlap with the interests of the USA”.
And this ties in with her approach to the domestic economy. She steered it through the worst of Europe’s financial crisis storms.
And for that the German people have shown their gratitude at the last three elections.
Wilpert sums up his thoughts on what’s behind her appeal, and her failings, “I think her success has to do with a combination of the appearance of a well-functioning economy (for the top 20-50%, mainly) and the fact that she moved her discourse on the refugee issue towards the right in order to take away the issue from the AfD.”
“Her economic policies are for the most part neoliberal and mercantilist. That might sound like a bit of a contradiction, but it’s mainly neoliberalism in terms of dismantling Germany’s welfare state (which the Social Democrats already dismantled to a large extent in the early 2000’s) and mercantilism in terms of promoting German manufacturing by any means necessary. This is a pretty good formula for macro-economic indicators, but not for poverty or inequality rates, which have climbed during Merkel’s tenure.”
This post was originally written for and published by TeleSUR English.