Fourth term? In Merkel, many Germans see steadiness in roiled Europe

Chancellor Merkel has come under fire for opening Germany to more than 1 million refugees last year. But in wake of votes for Brexit and President-elect Trump, her appeal is once again rising.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference in Berlin to announce that she will run again for the chancellorship in next year's general elections, Nov. 20, 2016.

Politics has been thrown off-kilter across Western democracies. So Angela Merkel’s announcement that she will run again for German chancellor has resonated well beyond this country. 

Speculation ran high about whether Ms. Merkel would go for a fourth term. While her decision to welcome refugees to Germany has been celebrated abroad, at home it has cut into her support base, as has her 11-year tenure. That was evident in her party's stinging loss – in her home state – to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) in regional elections this fall.

But the nation's ambivalence about yet another term has suddenly shifted. For some there is simply no alternative: Many see  “Mutti,” or “Mummy,” as she has been nicknamed at home, as best able to handle the political storms rattling Europe, from immigration to Brexit. Her reaction to the US election of Donald Trump – subdued yet with a reminder about both nations' commitments to rules and processes – stood for supporters as a calming antidote to the emotional shockwaves his victory unleashed elsewhere.

“Merkel knows full well that our systems, our identity, has less to do with individual personalities in charge of our countries, and more to do with the institutions and processes and the principles and the values which we are founded on,” says Joerg Forbrig, a Berlin-based transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “So I think she would rather argue, let’s not overestimate individuals, and let’s have more confidence in the institutional structure and frameworks that we have in our countries, and have had for so many years.”

If Merkel were to come out on top of parliamentary elections expected next fall, she would match Helmut Kohl’s record 16 years in office as an elected chancellor. She has been touted by her party as the responsible choice of the times.  “In an ever-unclear world, she is the guarantor of stability,” Volker Bouffier, a senior official in Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, said last night.

That viewpoint is largely shared internationally, says Matthew Qvortrup, author of "Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader,” and a professor of political science at Coventry University in Britain. “For ordinary people, as well as for markets, having Angela Merkel as the beacon of stability is difficult to overestimate,” he says. While Germany has been reluctant in the postwar era to lead – and European nations have historically wanted Germany neutered as well – now he says many are vying for a “German Europe.”

“A German Europe is an Angela Merkel Europe, a Europe that respects dignity, human rights, in a realistic sort of way, and democracy,” he adds.

She faces much more scrutiny at home, not just because of the refugee crisis but because many think she has reached her zenith, and that she can’t possibly be the sole pillar of the West. The daily Der Spiegel wrote that a fourth term is not justified, and to feel that only she, amid all the populists around her, can “uphold the banner of freedom, surpasses the German government's power, claim, and self-understanding,” the paper opined. “In this role, Merkel can only lose.”

A poll in the tabloid Bild showed 55 percent of respondents approved of her running for another term, up from 42 percent who said the same in August, even though her supporters express some ambivalence. "I'm worried that Merkel is too careful in tackling the issue [of populism at home]," says Antje Wejener, working at a small grocery store in the eastern part of Berlin. "Every individual must play a role, but it helps to have a strong political sign from above that this is not acceptable." 

Merkel has sought to downplay how much she as an individual can influence all the trends around her. In announcing her candidacy, she said that at a time when “our values” and “our way of life” are threatened in Europe and beyond, “no person alone, even with the greatest experience, can change things in Germany, Europe, and the world for the better, and certainly not the chancellor of Germany.” 

But many see her way of working through crises ranging from Russia to the Greek bailout – methodically, taking her time, and often hesitating, a style that earned a new addition in the German dictionary, "merkeln" – as particularly suited to the era. Mr. Qvortrup says she has a knack for dealing with strong male personalities, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, and he expects the same in her dealings with Mr. Trump. Her tactical skills were on display as she responded in a statement to his victory, he says.

"Germany and America are bound by values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of the individual, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views," she stated. "On the basis of these values, I offer close cooperation to the future president of the United States of America, Donald Trump."

Paul Nolte, a German historian who has written extensively about Merkel, says that her candidacy is symbolically crucial, especially since November. But he says no German chancellor would break from her main path. “They would feel the need and the pressure from this specific global situation and feel the commitment to strengthen the liberal world order,” he says.

In a sign of how vital Germany is today, President Obama spent two days in Berlin last week, on what is expected to be his final foreign trip. It was seen in Germany as laying the ground for Merkel’s announcement Sunday. Mr. Obama suggested that if he were German, he might even cast a vote for Merkel. 

Could that backfire, as it did after he threw his support behind the Remain camp of Brexit, or could Merkel be cast off as the establishment like Hillary Clinton?

Mr. Nolte says probably not. Merkel has nowhere near the enemies that Mrs. Clinton did, and Germans have little stomach to upend the system.

“There’s also this populist, anti-establishment feeling in Germany, but that’s directed toward all representatives,” he says. Merkel herself, he says, is not the target.

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