Despite criticism of her corona management strategy by many, Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported her to be the most popular German politician. The prediction cannot be exclusively ruled out that Merkel's chancellorship would have been approved by majority of Germans had she decided to vouch for the fifth term

It was September 2005 – the campaigning for the national election in Germany was in full swing. The then reigning Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in capacity of the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was vouching for a third term; his opponent being a less popular quantum chemistry researcher turned politician Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). By then, it was not a steady journey for Merkel, whose campaign was marred by an under-par performance in the televised debate and proposed introduction of a flat tax scheme as well as hike in the value added tax (VAT). Despite these hitches, Merkel's CDU/CSU and Schroeder's SPD ended head-to-head, with the CDU/CSU winning 35.2 per cent of the total votes to the SPD's 34.2 per cent.

The result was so close that, initially, both the contestants claimed victory.

However, after three weeks of rigorous negotiations, the two parties broke a deal in forming a grand coalition – SPD held the major ministries in the cabinet that paved Merkel's path towards becoming the first woman Chancellor and the first Chancellor after German reunification to have been brought up in the former East Germany.

Merkel assumed office at a time when the German economy was wobbling with a staggering unemployment rate. Moreover, the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 during her first tenure proved to be a litmus test, which the Merkel administration countered with proficiency by tethering two major stimulus packages and a legal provision that successfully stabilised the financial and banking sector.

From then onward, by now, four consecutive terms, constituting 16 years under Merkel's reign, have defined an era in Germany.

During this time, Germany re-emerged as an economic powerhouse and more than five million new jobs were created. The debt brake, a balanced-budget provision, adopted in 2009 shifted the paradigm in Germany's economy that took the country from public deficit to surplus.

However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the global economic scenario; Germany is not an exception.

Its gross domestic product (GDP) slumped by 5 per cent in 2020, and the predictions for 2021 are not encouraging either.

Apart from that, the automobile industry that is considered to be the backbone of the German economy is going through its worst time with dying days of combustion engines and tough competition from non-German electric and clean energy vehicles.

These are the indications that the new German Chancellor is going to have a testing time right from the outset. Merkel shattered the concept of conservative political decision-making by pushing through the abolition of compulsory military service as well as initiating Germany's withdrawal from nuclear energy. As leader of the CDU, she modernised her party, encouraging and grooming female and young party cadres to rise up the ranks.

Hence, in light of her sympathetic attitude, many Germans affectionately call her 'Mutti', an informal German term for mother.

In hindsight, many argue that Merkel's quasi-maternal leadership carved her authority in German politics barring a healthy, democratic debate.

The peak in Merkel's tenure can arguably be defined by her skillful handling of the refugee crisis in 2015. The legendary phrase that she proclaimed during that time, 'we can make it!' ('wir schaffen das!') summarise her approach towards solving the crisis. At the time when the whole European Union was split over the refugee issue, Merkel took the initiative to provide sanctuary to hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from Syria and neighbouring war-torn regions.

This humanitarian approach was globally lauded and established Merkel as a skilled conflict manager.

However, Germany and the European Union is still deeply divided over the refugee and migrant issue, triggering the emergence of a far-right, ultra-nationalist political party in Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Merkel repeatedly exhibited her decision-making and conflict management skills during politically turbulent times, be it the eurozone crisis or the Greek bailout. Moreover, Merkel stepped up to take decisive action after Russia's annexation of the Crimea, when most of the countries were mum regarding the issue.

In fact, she regularly hosted world leaders in Berlin for mutual dialogue thereby re-establishing the German capital as the centre of European diplomacy. Angela Merkel is one of the most popular contemporary world leaders and eminent German face in the global arena. In fact, she was consistently ranked as Forbe's most powerful women from 2006 till 2020, the only exception being 2010 when she was ranked fourth.

Since 2005, it has been a veritable Merkel era in Germany, especially with the German teenagers today recognising only her as Germany's leader.

After leading Germany from the front for an astounding 16 years, Merkel decided to stand down and relish a well-deserved retirement.

Recently, her corona management strategy had been criticised by many. Despite the flaw, Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported her to be the most popular German politician. The prediction cannot be exclusively ruled out that Merkel's chancellorship would have been approved by majority of Germans had she decided to vouch for the fifth term.

The responsible leader that she is, Merkel has let the arena open for a deserving candidate, be it Armin Laschet, the leader of Merkel's CDU/CSU; Olaf Scholz, leader of the SPD and current vice-chancellor, or the young energetic Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of Alliance 90/ The Greens. No matter who triumphs in the national election on September 26, one thing is sure that the successor of Angela Merkel has a really giant pair of shoes to fill.

Dr Joshi is senior scientist and Assistant Professor of Neurobiology at Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany

A version of this article appears in the print on September 3 2021, of The Himalayan Times.