Germany’s Chancellor looks set for another victory in this month’s parliamentary elections. What, if anything, can we learn from her success?
On September 22, Germans will head to the polls to choose who will represent them in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament. At the center of attention will be Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor (similar to a prime minister). As head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the largest party in the Bundestag, Merkel has served as Bundeskanzlerin since 2005, and she is widely expected to remain in that position after the election.
Merkel’s time at the top of German politics has come at a critical period for Europe. The financial meltdown of 2008 and ongoing Eurozone crisis have placed her at the pinnacle of global power, the head of the most dynamic economy in the European Union. Although the country’s economic growth did slip into negative territory in 2009 – the result of an international slowdown – it has since rebounded and is looking much better than France, Spain, or Italy.
When important decisions have been made about bailing out Greece, introducing Eurobonds, or other financial measures, the world has looked to Merkel and Germany to see how things will go. Forbes ranked her as 2012’s most powerful woman and second most powerful person on the planet, explaining, “The world’s most powerful woman is the backbone of the 27-member European Union and carries the fate of the euro on her shoulders.”
It is an unlikely turn of events for Merkel. She was born in Hamburg, West Germany, but her family soon moved to the town of Templin in East Germany after her father, a Lutheran minister, received a pastorate there. Thus, Merkel grew up in the communist German Democratic Republic. Just how closely she aligned herself with socialist organizations and principles has been a matter of some debate.
What we know for sure is that she received a substantial education in science and mathematics, earning her doctorate and eventually working as a researcher. It was only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the events surrounding that time that Merkel became involved in the growing democratic movement within the GDR. She joined the Democratic Awakening party and ultimately served as deputy spokesperson for the East German caretaker prime minister, Lothar de Mazière, prior to the formal reunification of Germany.
Once East and West were brought together again, she ran for office and was elected to the Bundestag, becoming a favorite of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who reportedly referred to her as “mein Mädchen”, which means “my girl”. After becoming a Cabinet minister, she was well positioned to take advantage when a poor election showing in 1998 and subsequent financial scandal forced Kohl out of his spot at the head of the CDU.
Merkel was elected as the first female head of her party in 2000, but her power was limited at the beginning. The CDU has historically been male-dominated (like practically every other institution on earth) and more Catholic than Protestant, the latter mostly due to its large power base in Bavaria, the mainly Catholic section of southeastern Germany. Party rival Edmund Stoiber was able to gain the party’s blessing to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his more liberal Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the 2002 parliamentary elections.
However, when Stoiber was not able to secure victory for the CDU, Merkel’s moment had come. She was able to become the party’s leader in the Bundestag, making her the effective leader of the opposition. In the 2005 election, CDU achieved a narrow victory over the SDP, though neither party had enough seats to form a majority government.
These two largest parties ended up forming a grand coalition with Merkel at the head, allowing her to become Germany’s first female chancellor. The 2009 election was even more successful, with the SDP losing a large percentage of its seats, which allowed Merkel to ally instead with her preferred partners, the more conservative Federal Democratic Party.
As Chancellor, Merkel’s popularity has seen its ups and downs. She has gained many fans while also creating some prominent critics. While some applaud her for being a shrewd navigator of European politics and having an ability to balance competing interests, others complain that she tries to shy away from controversy and simply make voters complacent. Certainly, Merkel has not been perfect – no politician is. But her achievements are still impressive, not just within Germany but also on an international level.
Not only can Merkel be seen as a positive role model for up-and-coming females in politics, regardless of whether they agree with all of her policies: she has also been a particularly fresh breath of air for the United States. When her predecessor as Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, made a firm decision that his country would have nothing to do with the U.S.-led Iraq War, Merkel published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Schroeder Doesn’t Speak for all Germans” that defended the German-American alliance.
Whether or not you agree with the wisdom of Merkel’s position regarding Iraq, this can be seen as one example of her desire for a better relationship with the United States. Her enthusiasm for the transatlantic relationship has been well-documented. She believes that Germany’s interests are better served when it is working in partnership with the U.S, even if there are occasional differences. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed: in 2011, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling her “an eloquent voice for human rights and dignity around the world”.
So this month, as Mrs. Merkel will likely crush her SDP rival Peer Steinbrück at the polls, I thought it would be fitting to devote one article to the world’s most powerful woman. (Other than Beyoncé, of course…) She may not be right about everything, but perhaps that’s why I find her story a bit inspirational. It isn’t the stuff of fairy tales. It is a story of hard work, pragmatism, shrewd actions, and the ability to discern what is right when it is right.
Merkel’s success is a victory of brains over simple emotions, of knowing how to get things done and lead without being overly flashy. I salute the entirely human Angela Merkel. She truly is a Mädchen in Flammen. (To award you for persevering to the end of this article, this German phrase is my attempted translation for “Girl on Fire”. I’m sure someone will correct me if I am incorrect.)
The biographical information in this article is based on publicly available facts, many of which can be found on the Wikipedia page for Angela Merkel.