Angela Merkel has been chancellor of Germany since 2005. Germany’s success and her kindly authoritative personal style made her one of the most important leaders of this age. But she isn’t likely to go down in the annals of great 21st century leaders, because if anything she’s a relic from the late 20th century, a period marked by prosperity and spreading democracy.
On Monday Merkel signaled that the period of moderation, stability and aspiration for unity is ending: She advised her colleagues in the CDU that she won’t run for the party leadership again, after 18 years on the job, but will step down in 2021. Just yesterday Brazil voted in a populist right-wing leader, Jair Bolsonaro, whose political stances and style couldn’t be more different from hers.
Merkel led the Christian Democratic party, a classic center-right vehicle that believes in free enterprise as well as social safety nets. She led the European unity project; she believes in globalism and economic cooperation as a basis for peace between peoples. She believes in the Christian German values of working hard and honoring debts.
Her announcement doesn’t mean she’s leaving right away, just that she evidently doesn’t mean to run in the 2021 general election.
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In fact she had been expected to retire earlier, but Donald Trump’s election in 2016 made her rethink her commitments, playing the role of adult in the environs of this decidedly different president. At least that’s what Ben Rhodes, a former deputy U.S. national security adviser, says in his book regarding a conversation between Merkel and outgoing President Obama: Now she’s on her own, Obama observed, according to Rhodes.
So although Merkel won a fourth term, it looks like her last. Her announcement isn’t surprising, but it’s still shocking.
Merkel led Germany through the great global financial crisis, followed by the great European debt crisis that threatened the very existence of the bloc, but even so, at home her gleam has dimmed. In local elections, two weeks ago in Bavaria and on Sunday in Hesse, her CDU party and its coalition partner CSU were trounced by the Greens and the AfD, both of which are farther out on the political spectrum.
Even before that, her seat in Berlin was imperiled. CSU leader Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, got into a bitter fight with her and threatened to quit over the refugees crisis. Merkel saved the government by agreeing to change Germany’s liberal immigration policy – turning her back on her own open-borders policy of three years ago.
The establishment of the European Union and the euro bloc did well by many Europeans, but also provoked some evil spirits. The polarization and insularity began to awaken in 2014, as vast numbers of refugees and migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia began to reach Europe.
Discontent also ensued when Merkel led a draconian, uncompromising policy against the debt-stricken European nations, demanding sacrifice from their taxpayers. Greece, teetering on the brink and dysfunctional at both the governmental and civilian levels, became a bitter example for other countries: It lost its sovereignty, de facto, to the bureaucrats in Frankfurt (European Central Bank), Berlin (German cabinet), Brussels (European Commission) and Washington (International Monetary Fund).
Issues of sovereignty and economic distress were fertile grounds for discomfort that escalated into howling rage. When Merkel opened Germany’s borders, she ignited a fire that spread through Europe. That drove the rise of nationalist parties like the League in Italy; Brexit support in England; and nationalist politicians busily dismantling democracy in Poland and Hungary.
Like many former European leaders, Merkel is the child of the post-World War II order. They were elites, intellectuals, acknowledging the advantages of the EU for the environment and human rights, competition and consumer protection. Being well-off, they don’t have to struggle to survive. They never lined up at a soup kitchen or lived in dilapidated, dangerous public housing. They and their children didn’t have to go to inferior public schools or obey the laws of sharia, as is happening in some private British schools.
The migrants have been a flash point for populist leaders. They helped politicians like Matteo Salvini of the far-right League. Convoys of migrants are the specter Donald Trump is using to whip up his base for the midterm elections. Millions upon millions of people worldwide feel that their traditional, moderate leaders simply don’t heed their needs or understand their fears – and continue to push policies that benefit the rich and powerful.
Merkel’s mistakes will color her legacy. She was admired and can take credit for massive political victories; she brought the Germans out of the economic crisis in better shape than they went into it. She led her country to prosperity. But the political arena’s operating system is changing, as seen by the Twitter wars pursued by the Leader of the Free World, who feels free to roundly insult his own citizens. Look at Brazil, whose leader prefers dictatorship and calls for civil war: If some innocents die, that’s okay, and let’s not even get into his loathing of homosexuals, women, natives and blacks.
When Merkel finally does retire, she could be replaced by a younger version of herself – an inclusive conservative, moderate yet decisive, democratic and humanistic. But by 2021 Germany could be a very different place. It is frightening to think of Germany again being led by a leader whose main talent is to whip up the people, a fan of dictatorships like Bolsonaro, or even somebody like Salvini. That possibility cannot be ruled out – just as we couldn’t rule out the possibility that the U.S. would be led by a media personality, or that the British would abandon their common sense and actually vote to leave the European Union.