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The Merkel effect 

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A week is a long time in politics, and Angela Merkel has had over 1,600 of them mostly sitting in arguably the hottest seat in Europe. The four-term Chancellor enjoyed a quick and steady rise in the 1990s, but her star only continued to soar in the decades following. 

The unassuming leader largely stayed out of the public eye but went all-in whenever a crisis loomed, a lesson for the fair-weather, Instagram-ready decisionmakers that crowd the political arena. Many were fearing that the Merkel mystique had started to deflate as she headed into the final leg of her career, but her first response to the extraordinary Covid-19 pandemic reminded Germans – and the world – why the straight-talking Chancellor was going to be missed. 

Her exit from the political stage, however, is also an opportunity for a different brand of leadership to emerge both in the Federal Republic and the European Union. Often a pragmatist, Merkel has rarely inspired with visionary ideas, even when she recently made impassioned speeches in favour of environmental sustainability. 

Many observers – and critics – credited the steely leader with saving the Eurozone in the wake of the Greek government-debt tragedy, but there was little else for future generations to build upon. 

Measured, poised, balanced, Merkel was hardly one to make bold or radical statements. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, voted against disruption and went for “Mini-Merkel” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer over the controversial Friedrich Merz or the unorthodox Jens Spahn in the 2018 party leadership race. When Kramp-Karrenbauer stepped down last year, the CDU installed the Chancellor-approved Armin Laschet and veered away from the Merkel-defying Norbert Röttgen and Friedrich Merz once again.

The September elections brought in the worst figures on record for the CDU and while the post-election brokering has only just begun, the results will surely trigger profound soul-searching by the party elite. 

Merkel’s imprint on German politics is so deep that her departure will likely leave a leadership vacuum for a political generation. Especially so because both Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz, leader of the new-biggest party SPD, positioned themselves as continuity candidates. 

The situation leaves a gap for contenders from different leadership moulds to enter the fray and, come the 2025 Federal Elections, we can expect the real beginning of the post-Merkel season. 

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