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Angela Merkel profile: EU's de facto leader

By Maame Aba Afful
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"Whoever decides to dedicate their life to politics knows that earning money isn't the top priority", quoted by German Chancellor, Angela Merkel who is described as the European Union's most powerful female leader, characterizes her political perspectives which may have risen her through the ranks.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, victorious in national elections but wounded by a fall in support for her party, faced the challenge, Monday of patching together a government for her fourth and final term.

The Sunday vote left Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) well ahead of all other parties in the race for the German Parliament, known as the Bundestag. 

But the party’s support fell well short of the mark it set four years ago, and her coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), faced a similarly steep decline. 

However, Merkel's domestic popularity is not what it was, even though one poll suggested as many as 55% of Germans want her to serve a fourth term.

Born in Hamburg 17 July 1954, Angela Dorothea Kasner was only a couple of months old when her father, a Lutheran pastor, was given a parish in a small town in East Germany.

She grew up in a rural area outside Berlin in the Communist east, and earned a doctorate in physics, later working as a chemist at a scientific academy in East Berlin. She married fellow student Ulrich Merkel in 1977 but divorced four years later.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Merkel joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) political party and soon after was appointed to Helmut Kohl's cabinet as minister for women and youth and later served as minister for the environment and nuclear safety. Following Kohl's defeat in the 1998 general election, she was named secretary-general of the CDU. In 2000, she was chosen party leader but lost the CDU candidacy for the chancellor to Edmund Stoiber in 2002.

In the 2005 election, Merkel narrowly defeated Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, winning by just three seats, and after the CDU agreed to a coalition deal with the Social Democrats (SPD), she was declared Germany's first female chancellor. Merkel is also the first former citizen of the German Democratic Republic to lead the reunited Germany and the first woman to lead Germany since it became a modern nation-state in 1871. She was elected to a second term in 2009.

Merkel's first government was an uneasy "grand coalition" with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Then, between 2009 and 2013, she governed with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).

As Europe's financial crisis bit, she became the symbol of fiscal austerity, prescribing sweeping budget cuts and tight supervision as the cure for southern Europe's chronic debts.

Critics say her initial reluctance to resort to bailouts weakened the eurozone's credibility but as Germany became the biggest paymaster for the eurozone bailouts, so Mrs Merkel too became the driving force behind the EU's efforts to restore confidence in the euro.

Protesters in Greece and Spain blamed Germany for imposing fiscal austerity, occasionally likening Mrs Merkel to Hitler.

Germany's resilience, low unemployment and healthy export success for years boosted her popularity at home, where she was widely seen as a safe pair of hands in tough times.

In 2013, her FDP coalition partner failed to win a single seat, leading Mrs Merkel to return to a coalition with the SPD.

Her attitude to austerity eventually softened.

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For years seen as a safe pair of hands, Angela Merkel faced her biggest challenge as chancellor when migrants and refugees began heading in large numbers for Europe's most successful economy.

As late as July 2015, the chancellor was seen by some as insensitive when she tried to comfort a girl who had been waiting for years for residence in Germany.

But as the number of new arrivals grew, Angela Merkel took the lead in opening Germany's borders, temporarily suspending an EU rule requiring asylum seekers to register in the first member state they entered.

Her decision to open the borders to refugees fleeing conflict in Syria in 2015 sparked a backlash. She stopped short of admitting she had made a mistake but said "if I could, I would turn back the clock many years" to prepare better for the arrival of 890,000 asylum seekers, most of whom were not from Syria.

Her mantra that Germans would manage - "wir schaffen das" - was at the time widely praised, but has since been dropped. Germany's conservative leader, 62, now aims to "do something for social cohesion" from the centre ground.

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She was feted at the United Nations for her humanitarian stance and Time magazine celebrated her as its person of the year and de facto leader of the European Union.

But not everyone was happy with the open-door policy and the populist, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) was spearheading opposition to it.

In September 2016, the AfD pushed her CDU into third place in regional elections in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

What began as anti-Islam marches in the eastern cities of Leipzig and Dresden was becoming mainstream.

Sexual assaults by migrants on New Year revellers in Cologne and then Islamist attacks in Germany during the summer all dented the chancellor's popularity.

And yet, she is still seen as the candidate most likely to return to the chancellery and the CDU is still well ahead in the opinion polls.

The CDU has several rising stars but as Angela Merkel sees it, she has a duty to serve when faced with "struggles in Europe and internationally for our values and our interests and, simply put, for our way of life".

The reality for her party is that none of the potential candidates appear ready to take on her job, in what she describes as "distinctly difficult, even insecure times".

Barack Obama said in Berlin that if he were German he might support her.

However, her air of dauntlessness is long gone. As the chancellor, herself said, "This election will be difficult, like no other election since reunification".

Credit: BBC News

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