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The long, slow goodbye to Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel. Photo/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to leave the job in 2021, but that’s not soon enough for some.

They’ve been going on about it for months. “The end of Angela Merkel’s era is nigh,” various Germany-watchers kept saying. “She’ll have to resign now,” pundits predicted after every recent setback for the German coalition government. “This is it for Merkel, she’s out, she’s done for,” analysts bayed every few days.

But, in fact, naysayers have been predicting the end for the German Chancellor since she took the job. “The beginning of the Merkel era was the beginning of the end of the Merkel era,” was how one German media watchdog put it, as they gathered up an amusing selection of doomsayers, starting in April 2000.

But then, last month, it finally – finally! – happened. At the end of October, after Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats, proved unpopular in yet another state election, the woman who has led Germany for 13 years, and her party for 18, did what everyone had been saying she would. Sort of.

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Merkel said she would not be standing for re-election as head of her own party at its national congress in early December. And she won’t be running for Chancellor again in 2021, even though she plans to continue leading the country until then.

All those self-righteous commentators were proven right (never mind that some of them were a few years off) and the pundits’ glee has felt like the ultimate case of “I told you so” combined with what Germans call “schadenfreude”, an untranslatable word that means taking guilty pleasure in somebody else’s misfortune.

There are some people who, given their ideology, could be forgiven for this. It includes Germany’s Social Democratic Party, which will be pleased to reclaim the centre-left ground Merkel stole from it over the years. It could also include Merkel’s enemies within – conservative party members she ousted who see her demise as their opportunity to drag the Christian Democrats rightwards, and, at the same time, put the kibosh on those further-right parties that are stealing its voters. And it certainly includes the extremist scaremongers who are still going on about all those evil refugees she let in back in 2015.

But why anybody else would be celebrating is unclear. Whether you agree with the woman’s tactics or not, she has led her party, and the country, successfully for more than a decade. Her style of governance has been nicknamed “Merkeling” – it refers to the wait-and-see, consensus-behind-closed-doors approach she has often taken. Some have defined that as pragmatism, others as damaging hesitancy.

A colleague once observed that how you feel about the 64-year-old leader really depends on who you are. 

All that Merkeling has made her a bit of a blank slate. Some might say that is a weakness, especially in a Europe that desperately needs strong leadership. But if you were looking for a feminist role model, you could find it (even though Merkel herself has been non-committal about her own feminism). If you were after integrity or humanity or compassion, that was there, too. And if your tastes run to “traitor to the Aryan race”, or an arrogant German preaching unjust economic austerity, or a social conservative who vacillated on gay marriage, these characterisations are also available.

No matter which one you choose, there is one thing that cannot be denied: Merkel got the job done – and she took responsibility for her actions, over and over again, including, some might say, her planned resignation. That is more than can be said for so many others in office today.

This article was first published in the November 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.