Angela Merkel has never been one for great visions. After 12 years in power, even most Germans don't really know what she stands for.
Wait and see, stay out of the firing line, compromise and settle for policies that don't hurt anyone — that is her style of governing. It has become so closely associated with her that the verb “merkeln” has entered the German language. It means to dodge and procrastinate and muddle through.
As a doctrine it is not the handbag-flailing neoliberal reforms of Thatcherism. But by not rocking the boat, she has managed not to fall.
Now 63, Ms Merkel, has stayed at the helm longer than the former British prime minister, and she is widely expected to remain in charge of Europe's largest economy for the foreseeable future. That is quite an achievement given that her conservatives sustained heavy losses in the election in September with support sinking to its lowest level since 1949.
That said, she has been weakened by the vote which reflected public anger at her decision to allow in more than a million people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa — the only time in her chancellorship that she took a risk.
She is paying the price now. During the campaign, protesters hurled tomatoes at the woman who had been esteemed at home and abroad as the nation’s “Mutti” (Mummy) and the last bulwark against right-wing populism in the free world.
There is unprecedented grumbling in the ranks of her usually disciplined Christian Democratic Union party. Members of the party’s youth wing have been particularly vocal, with one regional politician in Berlin, Sven Rissmann, saying the party had “degenerated into unconditionally applauding the chancellor.” She had led the party to a “disastrous” election result and her refugee policy was to blame, he added.
It is time, some CDU members are saying, for a new generation of leaders to take over the party. They want to plan for the post-Mutti era. However, it’s significant that no senior CDU figures are openly opposing her.
The past year has undoubtedly been the worst year of her reign so far. In the opening days of 2018 she is still looking for a coalition partner after power-sharing talks with the pro-business FDP and the Greens broke down in November. Now she is courting the reluctant Social Democrats with whom she governed last time. It is going to be a long, drawn-out process because many in the SPD are sick of working with her and are pushing to extract the maximum possible price for their co-operation. Some have suggested opting for an unprecedented “co-operation coalition” rather than a firm alliance — meaning that the parties would only agree on a limited number of projects and leave other policies to be decided freely through parliamentary votes. If that were to happen, she would be a lame duck for the rest of her time in office, which is why CDU leaders have ruled it out.
It will take months, maybe until the summer, before the next government is in place, assuming that the talks succeed; and she will need to make major concessions to get a deal.
She has suffered a striking decline in status. She was the undisputed queen of Europe after a decade of financial crises in which the fate of debt-ridden European countries rested on her word.
Now, relegated to a caretaker with no parliamentary majority for the time being, she is sidelined in Europe and cannot pass any legislation at home. It’s bad news for Germany’s automakers which have relied on her in the past to intervene on their behalf to soften EU CO2 emissions rules for cars. With tougher limits currently under consideration, it’s unclear whether she would have the clout to come to their aid again.
In EU matters, French president Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead with proposals to reform the bloc. And Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz has come up with a bold, controversial plan to set up a United States of Europe by 2025.
But it would be unwise to write her off. Throughout her political career, the shy pastor's daughter who grew up in communist East Germany has been accused of lacking leadership, yet has quietly and unfailingly outmanoeuvred her rivals.
At present, there is no one in her Christian Democratic Union party with the standing to challenge her. In a country that due to its turbulent 20th century history values stability above all else, the length of her tenure has become her biggest political asset. She is seen as a safe pair of hands in an increasingly unsafe world, and the unpredictability of Donald Trump has only heightened her appeal. Even if coalition talks fail and a snap election is held, she is widely expected to run as her party's candidate.
Germany is in no mood for fundamental change, despite the refugee crisis. The economy is firing on all cylinders, thanks to growing global demand for its cars and machines. Unemployment is down, companies are raking in record profits and clamouring for skilled workers, and there is no downturn on the horizon. Christmas spending was healthy.The people are unperturbed by the lack of a new government and spent money at Christmas There is no sense of political crisis. Most of Ms Merkel’s ministers from her previous coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats remain in office and are doing their job on an interim basis. Parliament is functioning. The country is humming along smoothly.
Ms Merkel has been lucky. Much of the economic boom on her watch resulted from painful labour market reforms and welfare cuts imposed 14 years ago under a Social Democrat government — yet she has managed to take the credit.
In another example of her good fortune, Austria, Hungary and Balkan nations unwittingly came to her aid after the 2015 spike in refugee numbers when 890,000 asylum seekers entered Germany. Those countries closed their borders to migrants coming up the so-called Balkan route from Greece, preventing them from arriving on Germany's doorstep.
The trained physicist is a crisis manager, good at analysing the problems that confront her. But she has focused too much on keeping voters happy with increases in pensions and benefits, and her neglect of necessary reforms is becoming increasingly evident.
Behind the solid fundamentals of this powerhouse economy lies an infrastructure that is crumbling due to years of under-investment, causing clogged-up motorways, bridge closures and chronic train delays. Germany lags far behind its peers in laying high-speed broadband lines and its notorious over-regulation chokes innovation.
Getting official documents processed is painfully slow because the public administration has yet to embrace the internet and remains locked in a mindset of rigid, top-down officialdom.
The gap between rich and poor is widening and international studies have found that the education system is failing the children of immigrants. The car industry, the country's most important sector, remains wedded to discredited diesel technology and has been slow to roll out affordable electric cars — and there's no proper charging infrastructure for them yet.
The country’s service industries are notoriously sluggish. Some sectors, such as pharmacies, are still governed by centuries-old trade rules, which shield smaller outlets from competition, enabling them to sell at cartel-inflated prices because big drugstore chains are forbidden.
There is no strategy for integrating the refugees, many of whom remain in limbo years after arriving, waiting for their asylum requests to be processed and getting entangled in red tape that prevents them from finding training and jobs.
Under Ms Merkel, Germany is unlikely to change. She has failed to chart a course for the country, which still struggles with its elevated role in the world more than a quarter of a century after getting full sovereignty with unification in 1990.
There is a simple reason why she is having trouble forming a government; the parties that have co-operated with her have suffered in subsequent elections because she has a knack of adopting their positions and taking the credit.
She is a chameleon, notorious for U-turns. She backed nuclear power and then rejected it; she refused an upper limit on the migrant intake and then agreed to one right after the September election; she allowed a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage but voted against it.
After four years of working with her in coalition, SPD leader Martin Schulz (who presided over his party's worst post-war result) called her a "vacuum cleaner of ideas."
But now the SPD and her conservatives are talking again, out of necessity to provide Germany with a working government rather than any shared vision to bring the country forward.
Few doubt that they will end up with a power-sharing deal because the alternative, a snap election, is too risky for both.
So Angela Merkel, who has studiously avoided grooming a successor, will go on "merkeln-ING" for some years to come.