German chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, tackles problems like scientific challenges, rather than charting a course for the country,
German chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, tackles problems like scientific challenges, rather than charting a course for the country,

Angela Merkel: the triumph of Europe's Iron Lady

BERLIN // To millions of austerity-hit Europeans, she is the uncompromising Iron Lady bent on reshaping the continent in Germany's image. But whether they like it or not, Angela Merkel is set to remain Europe's queen for a third term after the next general election in September.

Her tough stance in the euro crisis has helped to make the German chancellor so popular that it would take a massive scandal or political faux pas to oust her. Neither looks likely.

Mrs Merkel, 58, rarely makes mistakes, and anyone scouring her cupboards for skeletons is more likely to find a mop and bucket.

At first sight, her high ratings seem surprising. She is often accused of lacking a vision for Germany or Europe, her speeches are devoid of emotion, she looks ill-at-ease when meeting ordinary people and doesn't kiss babies on the campaign trail. Her gestures have been described as robotic. She seldom takes a strong stand on anything and has introduced few major domestic reforms in her seven years as leader.

But that lack of spark is the secret of her success. Germans fete her as a down-to-earth hausfrau who signs landmark treaties in the morning before stopping off at the supermarket on her way home.

When Mrs Merkel gets up in the morning, she starts by making her husband, chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, breakfast. At weekends, if she does not happen to be at a summit meeting telling the Portuguese or Spaniards to tighten their belts, she likes to cook her favourite dish - potato soup. When her spokesman rings her at home, he often hears pots and pans clanking in the background as she talks.

While other European leaders spend their holidays in glamorous locations with millionaire friends, Mrs Merkel and Mr Sauer go for quiet walks in the Alps of South Tyrol or on the Italian island of Ischia. She shuns flashy events such as the Berlin press ball. Her only indulgence seems to be an annual visit to the exclusive Wagner opera festival in Bayreuth. But even there, she has won praise for wearing the same dress on two occasions.

Is that boring? Possibly. But Germans have had their fill of charismatic leaders. Mrs Merkel trained as a physicist, which may account for her passionless approach to politics. Rather than charting a course for the country, she tackles problems like scientific challenges.

Gerd Langguth, a political scientist who has written a biography of Mrs Merkel, said that the country believes she has done a good job.

"We live in a very pragmatic age and Merkel is a pragmatic problem solver. She's not an ideologist," Prof Langguth said. "She is the opposite of pompous, she seems modest and she is incredibly hard-working, which Germans like. It is evident at EU summits when she has to give a news conference at five in the morning and then addresses parliament at nine."

Mrs Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, was plucked from obscurity in the early 1990s by then-chancellor Helmut Kohl, who made her a cabinet minister. With political cunning and a healthy dose of luck, she rose through the ranks of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and became its leader in 2000. She was elected chancellor in 2005.

Prof Langguth said she had a very good chance of remaining chancellor for another four-year term.

"People like her because there's nothing extraordinary or brash about her. She's clever. Her lack of self-promotion is part of her self-promotion."

A survey by the TNS institute published in Der Spiegel magazine at the end of December put her personal approval rating at an impressive 71 per cent. Another poll puts her conservative CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, at a seven-year high of 41 per cent, far ahead of the opposition Social Democratic Party at 29 per cent.

At present, she looks strong enough to remain in office even if her struggling coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, fails to make it back into parliament. She could simply choose another party to form an alliance with.

Germans are looking at the economic misery in many neighbouring countries and realising that they do not have much to complain about. The jobless rate, at 6.9 per cent last month, is among the lowest in Europe - Spain's rate is more than 25 per cent - and employment levels last year rose to their highest since Germany was reunified in 1990.

Strong demand for goods made in Germany is keeping the economy growing. Most important of all, Germans appreciate that Mrs Merkel has steered them through the euro crisis without making them pay too much for it.

That, combined with Mrs Merkel's sangfroid, explains why she has shrugged off the vitriol hurled at her across much of Europe, where many blame her for the cuts in wages and benefits imposed on them in return for bailouts dictated by the German leader.

Indeed, she is the de facto leader of the EU and, as leader of Europe's powerhouse economy, is one of the most powerful figures in the world.

During recent visits to Greece and Portugal, she was greeted by demonstrators holding up placards of her in a Nazi uniform. She has not bothered to comment on such insults and appears unfazed by accusations abroad that she is trying to establish a "Fourth Reich" in Europe.

In her annual new year address to the nation, she told Germans that the reforms agreed upon to combat the euro debt crisis were starting to take effect. "But we still need a lot of patience. The crisis hasn't nearly been overcome yet."

The subtext was: "You need me to stay in charge."

Given the gaffes being made by her Social Democrat challenger Peer Steinbruck, she doesn't have much to worry about.

Mr Steinbruck, a former finance minister, already under fire in his centre-left party for earning €1.25 million (Dh5.9m) from speaking engagements in the past three years, dug a hole for himself last week by saying German chancellors were underpaid.

"He has done himself huge damage by saying that," said Prof Langguth. "Now everyone thinks he will give himself a higher salary as soon as he becomes chancellor."

Mrs Merkel had her spokesman reply that the salary, which totals more than €250,000 per year, was sufficient. It was an easily scored point and helped to reinforce the public perception that their leader has reassuringly modest tastes.

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