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CHANCELLOR OF EUROPE

Angela Merkel gets her fourth term as chancellor of Germany as centre-left social democrats join hands with her centre-right Christian democrats to form a grand coalition

The five-month-political-deadlock ended in Germany when the main opposition party — centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) — joined hands with Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrat (CDU) to form a grand coalition. As she is assured a fourth term as chancellor, Merkel emerges as the most influential leader of/from Europe.

When she finishes her fourth term, Merkel will be the longest serving chancellor of Germany along with her political mentor Helmut Kohl. Kohl used to famously call Merkel “das Mädchen (the girl)” when she was a minister in his cabinet. She rebelled against Kohl and, finally, dislodged him to pave the way to grabbing the leadership of CDU. As one of her biographers aptly describes, “No one should underestimate Merkel’s commitment to staying in power.” Merkel has proved time and again that she’s a great survivor.

It was an existential question for SPD to support Merkel. They fought the elections against her but, later, it took them five  months, to decide to join her government  ‘in the interest of the country’.  The best national interest that this grand coalition hopes to serve is to halt the rise of influence of the far-right nationalist party by avoiding a re-election.

The mandate of last year’s general elections in Germany was a hung Bundestag (parliament). Significantly, for the first time since the collapse of Nazi Germany, a far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has done well enough to find representation. In terms of vote share, AfD secured nearly 13 per cent, which is only less than CDU and SPD.

Many political commentators dub the grand coalition as a marriage of convenience, as Merkel has retained power despite SDU’s worst performance since 1949. Though her party has not done so well, Merkel remains a popular leader. Even her worst detractors agree that in today’s Germany, Merkel’s the best bet to lead Germany. Fresh elections, it was feared, would only make AfD stronger as the public mood, not just in Germany but elsewhere in the Western Europe, is against immigration, a threatened sense of identity, economic anxiety and xenophobia. AfD has repeatedly made it clear that it has little faith in the European Union (EU) and its views are a German prototype of Brexit.

Interestingly, she’s the most unlikely candidate to dominate the politics of Germany. The oldest of three children, she was raised in a small-town, Templin, in communist East Germany. A scientist with specialisation in quantum, she is a remarried divorcee with no children.

More of a survivor than a fighter, a ‘politician of scruples’ as she was described sometime back, pragmatism is a virtue she’s blessed with in abundance. She is fluent in Russian but doesn’t get along well with President Vladimir Putin, as there’s a long list of disagreements that include Russia’s role in Syria and its support for a separatist movement in East Ukraine.

Despite all differences, Merkel was able to expedite Nord Stream 2 (NS2) — the proposed Russian gas pipeline project to pump 55 billion cubic metres of gas every year from under the Baltic Sea, doubling the capacity of currently functional Nord Stream 1. Germany defended this as a “respectable project” and a “commercial” engagement with Russia, despite opposition from certain countries within the EU, particularly neighbouring Poland.

Outside of Europe, the US is not happy with the project as it is seen as Kremlin’s plot to increase Europe’s dependency on cheap Russian gas. They even dubbed Germany as being ‘spineless’ when it comes to its commercial interest.

The situation in Europe is tricky, after Brexit and election of belligerent Donald Trump as the president of the US. He seems to have issues in the way EU functions and has made it amply clear on more than one occasion. More recently, Trump threatened to impose 25 per cent tax on cars exported from the EU as a retaliation to the new US steel export tariffs.

Merkel is seen as a leader who has the ability and clout to deal with the US and her strength is linked to her being a contrarian voice to Trump’s rhetoric.  Lately, she has been asserting that the Europe of today cannot rely on traditional friends, namely the US and the UK. She told an election gathering in Munich last year, “The times in which we could completely depend on others is, to an extent, over. We Europeans have to take our fate into our own hands.”

All said and done, Merkel is the tallest leader of Europe, and has, over the years, become the face of liberal, united Europe, which is distressed by influx of immigrants, terror attacks and resurgence of the right-wing nationalist forces across the continent’s political landscape.

The whole of Europe was waiting with bated breath for resolution of this political deadlock in favour of Merkel retaining power. She is the most ardent supporter of the European Union (EU); under her leadership, Germany has become the biggest paymaster for Eurozone bailouts, thereby ensuring restoration of confidence in the euro. Germany has the necessary economic means and she has so far dealt with the euro crisis reasonably well.

Merkel opened doors for immigrants, even temporarily suspended EU mandatory provision requiring immigrants to register with the first member state of EU they enter, despite the strong opposition from large section of people who see immigrants as a potential threat to the German way of life.