Merkel: Europe’s torch-bearer

Lesotho Times - - International -

BER­LIN — A Protes­tant pas­tor’s daugh­ter who grew up be­hind the Iron Cur­tain, An­gela Merkel rose to be­come the “chan­cel­lor of Europe” who has out­lasted a gen­er­a­tion of world lead­ers.

Un­like her one-time part­ners on the global stage, Ge­orge W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni, Merkel is still in power and run­ning for an­other fouryear term.

Dur­ing her reign, she has taken cen­tre stage in Europe’s debt tur­moil and refugee cri­sis, sparred with Rus­sia over Ukraine and now, af­ter Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion, is be­ing widely hailed as the torch-bearer of western lib­eral democ­racy.

With a doc­tor­ate in quan­tum chem­istry, Merkel (62) is known for a me­thod­i­cal and prag­matic ap­proach to prob­lem-solv­ing, rather than for soar­ing ora­tory or big-vi­sion state­ments.

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.

Ger­mans seem to like it that way, given how past ide­o­logues have plunged the coun­try into catas­tro­phe, and have re-elected “Mutti” (Mummy) twice since 2005.

‘Mama Merkel’ Merkel’s im­age as a re­as­sur­ing leader was up­turned last year when she took the un­usu­ally bold step of throw­ing open Ger­man bor­ders to an in­flux of refugees from Syria, Iraq and other con­flict zones.

The big­gest gam­ble of her po­lit­i­cal life won her praise from grate­ful asy­lum seek­ers who tear­fully cheered “Mama Merkel”.

But it also fu­elled a surge in racist hate crimes and rightwing popu- lism, an­gered Merkel’s coali­tion al­lies and saw her iso­lated within the Euro­pean Union.

Even if the 2015 in­flux of almost 900 000 mi­grants spelt Merkel’s big­gest do­mes­tic cri­sis so far, she has since seen her ap­proval rat­ings re­cover to around 60 per­cent as new ar­rivals have ta­pered off.

De­spite the po­lit­i­cal dam­age, she heads into the 2017 cam­paign sea­son as the strong­est can­di­date, with no se­ri­ous ri­val for the top post or likely chal­lenger in her own con­ser­va­tive ranks.

Be­hind the Wall Merkel was born An­gela Dorothea Kas­ner in 1954 in the port city of Ham­burg, but within weeks her fa­ther, a Lutheran cler­gy­man, moved the fam­ily to a small town in the com­mu­nist East, at a time when most peo­ple headed the other way. Seven years later they were liv­ing be­hind the Wall.

Biog­ra­phers say life in a po­lice state taught Merkel to hide her true thoughts be­hind a poker face.

Like most stu­dents, Merkel joined the state’s so­cial­ist youth move­ment, but she re­jected an of­fer to in­form for the Stasi se­cret po­lice while also stay­ing clear of risky prodemoc­racy ac­tivism.

The best stu­dent in her class, she ex­celled in maths and Rus­sian, which would later help her keep up the di­a­logue with Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, who was a KGB of­fi­cer in Dres­den when the Wall fell in 1989.

Dur­ing that mo­men­tous up­heaval, the 35-year-old Merkel was work­ing in a Ber­lin lab­o­ra­tory but quickly joined the nascent group Demo­cratic Awak­en­ing.

The group merged with the Christian Democrats of then chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl, who fondly if pa­tro­n­is­ingly dubbed Merkel “my 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 bold move kicked off her me­te­oric rise as youngest-ever and first fe­male Ger­man chan­cel­lor in 2005.

‘Free world’ leader In a party dom­i­nated by south­ern Catholic men, the twice-mar­ried, child­less woman from the com­mu­nist East was and re­mains an out­sider.

As party leader she has re­made the CDU, an­chor­ing it in the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre by push­ing so­cial poli­cies, abol­ish­ing com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice and scrap­ping nu­clear power.

Dur­ing the euro­zone cri­sis, Merkel preached fis­cal dis­ci­pline and kept a tight grip on the na­tion’s purse strings, sooth­ing the angst of a thrifty pop­u­lace fear­ful about its pen­sions.

Es­pe­cially in south­ern Europe, Merkel has drawn open ha­tred as a pu­ri­tan­i­cal “aus­ter­ity queen” some­times car­i­ca­tured in Nazi garb.

Her im­age flipped with the refugee in­flux, when news weekly Der Spiegel por­trayed her as “Mother An­gela” with a nun’s habit.

With Brexit, the Trump elec­tion and the rise of rightwing pop­ulism across Europe, new chal­lenges await.

Merkel would have pre­ferred to deal with Hil­lary Clin­ton, but af­ter the elec­tion of Trump, who has called her refugee stance “in­sane”, she promised him close co­op­er­a­tion — pro­vided it is based on “democ­racy, free­dom and re­spect for the law and the dig­nity of man”.

In a world shell-shocked by Trump’s elec­tion, many now see Ger­many’s bland, cau­tious vet­eran leader as a bea­con of hope.

Ox­ford Univer­sity’s Ti­mothy Garton Ash wrote that “I’m tempted to say that the leader of the free world is now An­gela Merkel”. — AFP

In this April 30, 1991 file photo then Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl back­ground looks on with Women and Youth Min­is­ter An­gela Merkel, prior to a cabi­net meet­ing in the Bonn Chan­cellery.

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