Connect to share and comment

Merkel's aura of mystery

Germans re-elected Angela Merkel, but how well do they know her?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, is accompanied by Guido Westerwelle, second left, leader of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), and an unidentified member of staff as they walk through the federal Chancellery during a meeting in Berlin, Sept. 28, 2009.(Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

BERLIN, Germany — What Americans know about Angela Merkel: Named by Forbes as the world’s most powerful woman for the fourth straight year, she was the world leader who grimaced at then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s shoulder rub.

What Germans know about "Angie": She is a confident chancellor who has made steady assurances that she would guide the world’s third-largest economy through the financial crisis.

But they don’t know much more about her than that.

While Germans have embraced Merkel’s displays of quiet authority, they haven’t been able to overcome the aura of personal and political aloofness that she projects. Germany knows that its chancellor is powerful, but the recent election campaign did not show them her vision for German society and her ideas for solving the country’s most fundamental structural and social problems. And that lack of clarity over what she stands for could get Merkel in trouble during her second term.

The general contours of her biography are clear enough. Raised in East Germany as the daughter of a Protestant pastor, she pursued a scientific career as a physicist in East Berlin.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the country, Merkel quickly rose through the ranks of the country’s governing conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, serving as environment minister from 1994 through 1998. The way Merkel coolly dispatched rivals both within and outside her party on her way to the top earned her respect among her colleagues — as well as a reputation for harboring a political identity motivated more by the maintenance of personal power than by any specific conservative principles. Her strategy may be explained as necessity: The earthy, western German, male Catholics who long dominated the party were not inclined to be long forgiving to the intellectual, eastern German, secular Protestant woman who had managed to take the reins.

Merkel already had one strike against her for the poorly managed campaign she ran four years ago that fumbled away the conservatives’ strong lead in national polls and forced the CDU into an unwieldy coalition with its rival, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Last Sunday’s election will only exacerbate traditional CDU members’ suspicions that Merkel has had an agenda to change party. Since climbing the merciless path to the top of the CDU hierarchy, Merkel has tried to attract independents by softening her party’s stance on social issues.

Where the CDU’s leadership used to routinely claim that Germany was not “a country of immigration,” Merkel organized conferences with the Muslim community in Germany to discuss social integration. Where the CDU was once skeptical that Germany could afford measures to counteract global warming, Merkel has presented herself as the “climate change chancellor.” And where the party used to go out of its way to show its reverence for the institutions of the Catholic Church, Merkel did not hesitate to criticize the current German-born Pope Benedict XVI for reinstating bishops who had denied the Holocaust.

But, in her term as chancellor, Merkel has not been nearly as vocal on issues traditionally closer to her conservative party’s heart, such as reforming the country’s labor markets and simplifying its tax code. Merkel has claimed she had no choice. She ran in 2005 on a platform of free-market reforms, she insisted, but the voters had forced her to work with the SPD.