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A Post-Merkel Post-Mortem

However one regards the outgoing German chancellor's 16 years in office, her departure marks the end of a political era. But, ultimately, rather than trying to steer events and public opinion, she too often allowed herself to be carried by them.

MUNICH – After 16 years in office, Angela Merkel is stepping aside as Germany’s chancellor. While other countries’ presidents and prime ministers have come and gone, Merkel has remained in power for four electoral terms, generally enjoying high public-approval ratings. But with her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) potentially heading into opposition following Germany’s September 26 federal election, how should we evaluate her long reign?

As the daughter of a Protestant clergyman who had relocated from West Germany to communist East Germany out of personal conviction, Merkel enjoyed privileges there. She was allowed to attend university in East Germany, participated in exchange visits to Moscow, and belonged to her country’s communist youth elite (FDJ) until the age of 35, when the Berlin Wall came down. When the West German CDU established itself in Germany’s new eastern states ahead of the 1990 federal election, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl recruited the canny young politician to the party. Merkel almost immediately rose to high office, and eventually became party leader. Following the 2005 election, she replaced Gerhard Schröder as chancellor.

Although Merkel did not grow up in a market economy, she ran against Schröder as an economic liberal and pledged to expand the labor-market reforms he had pushed through. Due to the high wage-replacement incomes provided by its social security system, Germany in the early 2000s had the highest unemployment rate among low-skilled workers of all industrialized countries and, intermittently, the lowest growth rates in the European Union. Many considered it to be the “sick man of Europe.” Schröder’s reforms were a huge success because they enabled the country to regain its economic health – ironically, under Merkel – and reduced unemployment in all segments of the labor market.

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