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Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, To Step Down in 2021

Described variously as “the most successful democratically elected leader of the 21st century,” “the real leader of the free world,” and the woman who gave a “breakthrough” to the far right and crushed Greece, Angela Merkel is finally preparing to give up the leadership of Germany after 13 years as the country’s chancellor. She will resign as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in December and does not plan to run for re-election again.

Although dull and stolid in character, Merkel has generated polarized reactions to her leadership at home and globally. To many progressives in the U.S., Merkel is widely seen as a humane and liberal figure for her 2015 decision to allow refugees into Germany and her close relationship with former U.S. president Barack Obama.

This is despite the fact that Merkel belongs to Germany’s traditional center-right party, the CDU, which is known for its fiscal hawkishness and social conservatism. Merkel softened the edges of her party’s message to appeal to moderates, a strategy that devastated the center-left Social Democrats and allowed her to maintain control of Germany for well over a decade.

Her approach, however, drew dissent from the right, particularly following her move on immigration. The Alternative for Germany, a far-right party which some characterize as linked to neo-Nazis, did not exist when Merkel first became chancellor. Today, some polls show it with 18 percent of the vote, drawing disaffected voters from both the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), traditionally the two parties of power in Germany.

Born in 1954 in the former communist East Germany, Angela Merkel was elected to the German parliament, the Bundestag, following reunification. Much like another famous female conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, Merkel was a chemist before entering politics.

She became the Secretary General of the CDU – the party’s leader – at the turn of the century. At the time, Germany was led by Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, in a coalition with the Green Party. In the 2005 federal election, Merkel’s party won the most seats but not enough to form a majority in the Bundestag. As a result, she was forced to team up with the SPD in a “grand coalition” of the center-left and center-right.

Re-elected in 2009 and 2013, Merkel has largely been supportive of the United States, NATO and what is called by many foreign policy analysts as the “liberal world order,” stances which are rejected by much of the left in Germany but widely supported by American progressives. After the victory of Donald Trump, her leadership of the European Union was hailed by many for upholding this order, although many economists cite the austerity policies she pushed in indebted European countries such as Greece as a disaster.

Merkel was the master of German politics. As Chancellor, she pursued a domestic policy characterized by contradictions – shutting down nuclear plants and claiming global climate leadership while at the same time shoring up dirty coal plants and covering for the scandal-ridden car industry, refusing significant social welfare cuts while continuing the Hartz IV unemployment reforms blamed by the left for reducing living standards, and allowing mass Muslim immigration while claiming that “multiculturalism has failed.”

Walking this tightrope led to great success until 2017, when voters flocked to parties on the far right and left. The Left Party, formed as a successor to the East German communists, and the Green Party now claim over 30 percent of the vote in polls, while the AfD and the Free Democrats, a libertarian party, would romp home with 26 percent if an election were held tomorrow. Dissent in her own party became louder over the past year, and her party’s poor performance in the regional election in the German state of Hesse was the last straw.

Now, three major figures from the CDU are vying to replace Merkel. Friedrich Merz, who had been Merkel’s competitor for the party leadership in 2000, is the candidate preferred by big business and the party’s powerful ex-chairman, Wolfgang Schaeuble. Merz is fervently pro-NATO and supports a more stringent policy on refugees and currently serves as a non-executive chairman at BlackRock.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party’s general secretary, is considered the candidate most likely to continue in Merkel’s liberal direction, although her politics are seen as a tick to the right of Merkel’s.

Jens Spahn, Health Minister in the current government, is the darling of the CDU’s far-right wing, decrying Muslims, the burqa, immigration, and the use of English in Germany. His chances are seen as slim compared to Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz, who is considered the front-runner among the party’s base.

Whoever becomes party leader is not guaranteed the chancellor seat, at least not without fighting for a re-election, as the Social Democrats might leave the coalition if the CDU, Merkel’s party, moves further to the right, eliminating the government’s majority in the Bundestag.

Meanwhile, competitors from outside the party are also itching at gaining power.

“The world is changing rapidly, but [under Merkel] German politics stood still,” said Annalena Baerbock, the 37-year-old co-leader of the Green Party, in a recent interview. Baerbock’s Green Party now lead Merkel’s CDU and are the largest party in the polls for the first time in their history.

“We have to finally deal with those other big questions, globalization, the digital transformation, and what it means for people’s life, tackling climate change, and providing solutions for a progressive society with a strong social safety net,” said Baerbock.