She was called “the leader of the free world” as authoritarian populists were on the march in Europe and the United States but Angela Merkel is wrapping up a historic 16 years in power with an uncertain legacy at home and abroad.
In office so long she was dubbed Germany’s “eternal chancellor”, Merkel, 67, leaves with her popularity so resilient she would likely have won a record fifth term had she wanted to extend her mandate.
Instead, Merkel will pass the baton as the first German chancellor to step down entirely by choice, with a whole generation of voters never knowing another person at the top.
Her supporters say she provided steady, pragmatic leadership through countless global crises as a moderate and unifying figure.
Yet critics argue a muddle-through style of leadership, pegged to the broadest possible consensus, lacked the bold vision to prepare Europe and its top economy for the coming decades.
What is certain is that she leaves behind a fractured political landscape, with the question of who will govern Germany next wide open just weeks before the September 26 election.
Assuming she stays on to hand over power, she will tie or exceed Helmut Kohl’s longevity record for a post-war leader, depending on how long the upcoming coalition negotiations drag on.
‘Do the right thing’
The brainy, unflappable Merkel has served for many in recent years as a welcome counter-balance to the big, brash men of global politics, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin.
A Pew Research Center poll late last year showed large majorities in most Western countries having “confidence in Merkel to do the right thing regarding world affairs”.
However the last days of her tenure have also been marred by what Merkel called the “bitter, dramatic and terrible” return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan — a debacle in which she shares the blame as German troops pull out.
A trained quantum chemist raised behind the Iron Curtain, Merkel has long been in sync with her change-averse electorate as a guarantor of stability.
Her major policy shifts have reflected the wishes of large German majorities — among them phasing out nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster — and attracted a broad new coalition of women and urban voters to the once arch-conservative CDU.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, her boldest move — keeping open German borders in 2015 to more than one million asylum seekers — seemed set to determine her legacy.
But while many Germans rallied to Merkel’s “We can do it” cry, the move also emboldened an anti-migrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), ushering a far-right bloc into parliament for the first time since World War II.
At the same time, hardline leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban accused her of “moral imperialism” with her welcoming stance.