The German federal election was held on the 26th of September 2021, with the preliminary results being announced on the same day. The incumbent Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lost its position as the majority party to the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The election is significant for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel will be stepping down after 16 years in charge, having been the first woman to hold such a position in her country. During a period where most world leaders have faced immense criticism from all corners, Merkel enjoyed high levels of popularity for almost her entire reign. Some view her as the best leader of her generation.
Merkel was born in West Germany barely a decade after the conclusion of the Second World War. Her family, however, moved across the border to East Germany when she was still an infant, and as a result, she is considered to be an ‘Ossi’ or a citizen of East Germany. Her life in the Eastern half would prove to be decisive in terms of her eventual entry into politics following the reunification of Germany in 1990. The limitations of communism had become undeniable to her, especially after a trip to West Germany during the 1980s. Until that point, however, Merkel spent her time in education, acquiring a PhD in quantum chemistry and working as a researcher at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. Her scientific background would aid her tremendously in her career as a politician, as it allowed her to have a detached point of view on all matters. She is credited for having “taken the politics out of politics” in Germany.
She began her career as the deputy spokesperson for the one and only premier of independent East Germany in 1990, before rising through the ranks of the CDU to become its eventual chairperson in 2000.
Amidst a climate of slowing economic growth and rising unemployment, Merkel seized the opportunity to become Chancellor during the 2005 elections which she won by the narrowest margins. She was sworn into her position in November of that year and became the first female Chancellor of Germany.
For the better part of the 21st century, Germany has been viewed as a success story especially in the developed world. In comparison to other countries in Western Europe and North America, Germany’s economic performance has been outstanding. Interestingly, it was not Merkel who initiated the policies that would bring Germany its prosperity, but rather it was her predecessor Gerhard Schroder. He decided to lower taxes, made cuts to the welfare state, and initiated significant reforms in the labour market. Merkel’s government thus inherited a set of policies that had already placed Germany on a course towards economic success. The country also benefitted from China’s growth which resulted in high demand for German manufactured vehicles, thus giving a to boost German exports.
Merkel’s most notable achievements with regards to the economy likely has to do with her reaction to the various crises that have occured during her terms. She ensured that people would remain employed by pumping billions of Euro’s into the widely successful ‘Kuzarbeit’ scheme. The scheme essentially sees the German government stepping in during an economic crisis, and offering to pay a part of a workers salary on behalf of the company that he/she is employed in. This then prevents the company from having to lay-off its employees during a period that usually calls for cost-cutting.
Following the 2008 Financial Crisis, Merkel immediately negotiated a stimulus package worth around 200 billion Euros with the other members of the EU to put the breaks on an economic slowdown. Germany itself contributed around 80 billion Euros which was used to fund infrastructure projects and other public investments.
The Sovereign Debt Crisis on the other hand proved to be much more difficult task for Merkel to handle. With economics around the continent being on the brink of collapsing, Merkel knew she had to intervene in order to save the Euro, and as a consequence, the EU. The German people, however, were not in favour of a bailout. Their view of countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, etc. was that the people were lazy and not careful with their spending. They did not deserve to be bailed out. Eventually, however, Merkel gave in to increasing pressure from other members of the EU and from the US to buy bonds from these governments in order to bail them out, but she did so on her own terms. All the countries who were worst hit had to now submit to strict budget rules and allow the EU to oversee their respective central banks. The Euro and and a unified Europe were saved, but austerity measures put in place continue to have a lasting effect on these economies even today.
Much of Merkel’s notable work as Chancellor and de facto head of Europe has been as a result of her reaction to the situations and issues around her. She has thus often been criticised for not being a proactive leader, one with a definite vision for her country and for the continent at large. This is where some of her failings with respect to the economy reveal themselves. For example, digitisation in Germany is still far behind that of its peers. Many German businesses and institutions still rely on fax machines for communication. She has not invested in high-speed broadband and there is a huge divide between the urban and rural areas in terms of connection speeds. Merkel had enough funds to invest into this project, but she failed to utilise them.
She has also been criticised for not effectively using her country’s position to lead a shift towards a green economy. Many countries around the world have legitimate issues with regards to costs to make that shift, but Germany has been uniquely placed, with its balanced budgets, to cut its emissions and utlise renewable energy on a large scale. Yet, the country still lags behind the EU average in terms of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as well as use of renewable energy in transportation. She did commit to phase out coal by 2035, but experts believe that Germany has had the capability to do much more.
The legacy that Angela Merkel leaves behind has more to do with her style of leadership rather than any particular policy or agenda that she pushed through. Yes, same-sex marriage was legalised during the tail end of her reign but this was not due to any advocacy from Merkel, it was simply the case that the time had come in Germany. What was impressive about Merkel’s reign is her restraint. Everything she did was measured and at any given point, she understood the risks involved and where the opportunities lied. She spent a considerable amount of time dealing with her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who was particularly aggressive with respect to Ukraine. While other leaders may have run out of patience, Merkel trusted in the power of diplomatic conversation and made sure to engage with him at least once a week in order to better understand what it was that Putin wanted. She was also distinctly aware of Germany’s place in history, particularly over the last century where they had been the villains in two world wars. In spite of being the most powerful country in Europe, she understood that for optic’s sake, she could not allow her country to embrace that position as she felt, like many other Germans, that they still had much to atone for.
She always had her fingertip on the pulse of the nation and only did what was popular amongst its people. The one time she took a gamble was during the migrant crisis in 2015, when she decided to keep Germany’s borders open while many other European countries shut theirs. Her approval rating was at an all-time high at this point and she made the gamble that it would not fall by enough for her to lose majority support in the country. She was right, she won the next election only very narrowly, but she did win.
She was, at any given point, the most powerful woman in the world. In fact, she was amongst the most powerful people in the world for most of her reign. She carried out her duties with a sense of responsibility that is usually absent amongst those in her position. She was not a transformative figure, but Germany is undoubtedly in a better position today than it was 16 years ago.