Angela Merkel: Flexible in politics and modest in private
Berlin: She’s been named the world’s most powerful woman, seen off a series of domestic rivals and led an unsentimental response to Europe’s debt crisis. But to many Germans, Chancellor Angela Merkel is a reassuring figure known simply as “Mutti”—Mom.
Beyond her bold decision to allow in large numbers of migrants and her insistence on budget cuts in Greece, Merkel’s more ordinary traits have helped make her an enduring presence and favourite to win a fourth term in Germany’s 24 September election.
Merkel is not the most glamorous of political operators. But that’s part of her appeal.
People like a leader who grows her own vegetables, takes unglamorous walking holidays, is occasionally seen shopping at the supermarket and lives in the same Berlin apartment she did before becoming chancellor 12 years ago.
Merkel has broadly satisfied Germans with a combination of ideological flexibility, calm decision-making, personal modesty and a touch of wry humour.
“I had a phase in my childhood where I wanted to do everything I was really bad at—ballet dancer, balance beam gymnast,” Merkel said in June. “Over the years, I have made my peace with what I can and can’t do.”
Her pragmatic approach and willingness to adopt liberal competitors’ ideas — coupled with luck — have allowed the conservative leader to stamp her mark on Germany’s political centre ground. Her knack for convincing Germans that she is on top of complicated crises and taking account of their worries earned her the “Mutti” nickname.
As chancellor, she dropped military conscription, introduced benefits encouraging fathers to look after their young children, and abruptly accelerated the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power plants following Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011.
She allowed in large numbers of asylum-seekers in 2015, declaring that “we will manage it,” before gradually pivoting to a more restrictive approach. Most recently, she cleared the way for parliament to legalize same-sex marriage—without actually endorsing the change herself.
It’s an approach that has roots in Merkel’s improbable route to the top: the daughter of a Protestant pastor, who grew up in East Germany, she had an early career as a physicist and entered politics only in her mid-30s as communism crumbled.
“She has a fixed compass as far as her relationship with human rights is concerned, because of her experience of dictatorship and her Christian belief,” says Jacqueline Boysen, a Merkel biographer. “She is certainly a woman who is very principled, but she is unideological.”
As the leader of the Christian Democratic Union since 2000, Merkel has slowly but surely modernized the party, to make sure it keeps up with changes in society.
She has shifted positions quickly when needed: in 2005, after barely winning an election in which she was expected to prevail easily, she struck a coalition deal with her centre-left rivals and dropped talk of far-reaching economic reforms at home.
Critics see opportunism and a lack of vision. Her first vice chancellor, centre-left Social Democrat Franz Muentefering, later said that “if you imagine being with her in a plane that she is flying, you don’t have to be worried about crashing—but you don’t know where you will land.”
The chancellor’s methodical approach reflects her scientific background.
“My decisions sometimes take a very long time, but when they are made I very seldom have problems with these decisions,” Merkel said at a summer event hosted by a women’s magazine.
Over the years, Merkel says she has become more direct in saying what she wants. All the same, her public speaking is still notorious for idiosyncratic and circuitous formulations—another legacy, perhaps, of her upbringing behind the Iron Curtain.
She recalls “always having to read between the lines” in East Germany, where “very delicate hints were enough almost to put you on the side of the class enemy.”
“In a society where there is freedom of opinion, everyone is used to putting their interests on the table much more clearly,” she says. After German reunification, she “thought people would understand my delicate hints—but that didn’t always work.”
If the chancellor’s words aren’t always crystal clear, her body language can be telling. Merkel herself acknowledges that she doesn’t have a poker face.
“I’ve given up — I can’t do it,” she says. “You have to live with your weaknesses.”
That self-deprecating humour underlines a generally reserved and modest lifestyle.
“She is not someone who is interested in luxury—big cars, jewellery, handbags and shoes, it doesn’t interest her at all,” says Boysen, the biographer. “And that has the effect of inspiring confidence in German voters.”
Other than annual trips to the Bayreuth opera festival, Merkel and her second husband, publicity-shy chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, keep their private life private. They have no children.
Merkel offers the occasional fleeting glimpse of home life—she mashes potatoes to make potato soup, rather than pureeing them. Walking is a passion “because you can clear your head.”
On the world stage, Merkel has outlasted most leaders, bringing a reputation for endurance to all-night negotiating marathons. She’s not one for backslapping friendships, but has built durable relationships with difficult leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin. She has worked to engage President Donald Trump while also publicly keeping her distance.
A succession of domestic rivals has struggled to unseat her as Germany’s economy has powered ahead. Merkel has camped out in the centre ground and held back from personal attacks—and, critics say, from formulating meaningful policies.
In June, centre-left challenger Martin Schulz accused the conservative leadership of avoiding a debate on Germany’s future and seeking to push down turnout.
“I call it an attack on democracy,” he said.
The response? A smiling putdown.
“I’ve always had a different impression of Martin Schulz, and the election campaign is probably very arduous,” Merkel said a few days later. “Let’s forget it.”
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