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Angela Merkel: The ‘Better Social Democrat’ Turns 65

Angela Dorothea Merkel was underestimated in 1991, when the late Helmut Kohl made her part of his government. First, she became Minister for Women and Youth. Then Kohl even gave his ‘little girl’ the environment department. A relatively young Angela Merkel with insecurities had to stand in front of cameras all of a sudden. Lots of them.

Only a year before she became minister, Merkel, a physicist whose institute was going to be given up after the reunification of Germany, was part of a movement called Demokratischer Aufbruch (‘Democratic Awakening’, DA) in the communist GDR. She led that organization into a process which would merge it with Helmut Kohl’s conservative party CDU (‘Christian-Democratic Union’).

A bit earlier, in October of 1990, 29 years ago, Angela Merkel was a DA delegate at an important CDU party convention in Hamburg, her birth city. Up there in the north she met Chancellor Kohl. He was impressed. Also he knew it was all about integrating as many Eastern Germans into his party as possible. Eastern ladies were even better.

In 1999, Merkel was not Kohl’s ‘little girl’ anymore. She even broke with him. As the CDU’s secretary general, she criticized her former mentor in an opinion piece in the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine’ daily, for refusing to name donors, when a rather big party donation scandal erupted. It did not take long until Merkel became the CDU’s chairlady. It happened on April 10th, 2000.

By then, the insecure politics novice had developed into an experienced player. With her former adversary Volker Rühe, a CDU colleague, she showed up in Washington D.C., where she discussed bilateral relations with senators on the Hill and already behaved like a head of government.

Back then, the author of these lines witnessed her press conference in the U.S. capital. There was a determined and focused politics pro who was testing this important terrain. She had answers and seemed to have a plan to oust the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) and their Green coalition partners in order to take over.

But she would have to wait another five years, until Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD suffered yet another major defeat, in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s largest province. After that one, he called for early elections. On September 18th, 2005, the Berlin Bundestag made Merkel the first female Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Angela Merkel uses a mobile phone in 1990. Photo: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung

Even before reaching the peak of her career, she had moved the CDU leftwards, towards the center. And she modernized the party. The CDU had mainly been ruled by a bunch of old guys around Kohl, with a few quota women. It was different now. At this point, Merkel’s adversaries, who had underestimated her from the start, had to admit to themselves that they had made a big mistake.

In the past fourteen years, Merkel has lead three grand coalitions, one of which is still ruling Germany right now, and one conservative-liberal coalition. During her partnerships with the SPD, she squeezed that party like an orange.

Political successes her social-democratic colleagues brought about were seen as her actions, meaning she received the laurels. Some called her “the better social democrat”, also because of her moderate approach which she could have pursued in the SPD as well.

At times she dipsy-doodled. For example she agreed to end the nuclear power era in Germany during her first grand coalition with the SPD. Then, while ruling with the liberal FDP, she exited the nuke exit. But when she saw reactors in Fukushima explode live on television, she exited the nuke exit’s exit.

There was one Kohl trait she adopted, which is sitting out problems. Merkel followed that strategy successfully, until the problems became too grave, during the Refugee Crisis of 2015. “We will manage.” This sentence of hers made her one of the most hated politicians among xenophobic Germans. The radical right-wing party ‘AfD’, which builds its success on xenophobia, has grown substantially since that moment.

During her time in office, the world became a lot more complicated, with autocratic leaders like Trump, Erdoğan and Putin, whose Crimea annexation changed everything. Domestically, the far right returned and the political landscape started changing substantially.

After suffering massive losses in many state elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced, she was not going to run for the chair of the CDU anymore. This was last year. Furthermore, she said she would not be Chancellor after the end of this legislative period, which ends in 2021. Nor does she want to even return to the Bundestag after leaving the Chancellery.

Merkel also killed rumors according to which she was considering running for a position at the E.U. or the United Nations, by saying she did not want to have any political position from 2021.

In the past, she had always said she believed the Chancellor should be head of the party as well. Now she left that stance. “I believe separating the two now has more opportunity than risks”, she stated before making her colleague Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer head of the CDU.

This means the Merkel era will be over rather soon. Since her government is shaky, her departure might take place even sooner than expected.

On July 17th, 2019, Angela Dorothea Merkel will be celebrating her 65th birthday.

Note: An earlier version of this article, entitled ‘Angela Merkel and the End of an Era’ was previously published on this site.