A German election – and leadership style – worth watching

Germany's Sept. 22 elections seem set to return Angela Merkel for a third term. Her leadership style has become indispensable to Europe's future. Why are her qualities of character so effective?

A giant campaign mosaic shows the hands of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her trademark diamond position indicating both power and modesty.

When asked to explain President Obama’s cautious moves on Syria, White House press secretary Jay Carney claimed the American people appreciate a leader “who doesn’t celebrate decisiveness for the sake of decisiveness.” He might as well have been describing the leadership style of Angela Merkel.

The German chancellor, who does her own grocery shopping, has been thrust by the eurocrisis into becoming the most powerful leader in Europe as well as the world’s most powerful woman. Her careful, step-by-step style of decisionmaking has steadily pulled the Continent back from a financial abyss. Her political skills at home – quietly stubborn but tactically flexible – have made her Germany’s most popular politician. In federal elections on Sept. 22, she is expected to win a third term, perhaps becoming Europe’s longest-serving female leader.

Germany today has become the world’s most popular country, according to a BBC survey. It has also become Europe’s indispensable nation. The export giant has financially rescued the eurozone’s less-disciplined countries – a dominating role that would make any postwar German leader somewhat uneasy, given the country’s past. The charisma-free Ms. Merkel has also led talks to redefine Europe’s grand experiment in unity.

Her newfound power in Europe as well as her style rely to a large degree on the qualities of her character. Nicknamed “Iron Frau,” this daughter of a Lutheran minister raised in communist East Germany is often coolly pragmatic with a methodical approach. She offers no grand vision for the 28-member European Union yet she worries for its future. Her insistence on austerity since the eurocrisis began in 2009 has imposed a difficult identity of German-style thrift on the welfare states of the EU and offended many in Greece, Portugal, and Italy.

Yet Merkel knows when to swiftly turn-about, as she did after Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, promising to phase out Germany’s nuclear plants. When fiscal austerity threatened the eurozone’s weakest states – also threatening Germany’s economy – she let up a bit on her demands for tough reforms.

True to her style, she has been more patient than bold in joining other Western nations in confronting Syria’s use of chemical weapons. She is not one to draw red lines, preferring instead to wait for a problem to ripen before making a tough decision.

Germany’s election campaign has been rather boring. Merkel’s main challenger, Peer Steinbrück of the Social Democrats, has stumbled in highlighting his differences with the policies of her Christian Democrats. But both Europe and the rest of the world should care about this election, in part because the cautious Merkel might make a decisive move in a third term. Germany could lead the EU down a new path. She is not one to be decisive for the sake of decisiveness.

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