Chancellor Angela Merkel has become an icon. Abroad, she's held in high esteem due to the length of her tenure and her conduct during Europe's refugee crisis. But back home, support for Merkel is waning.
Angela Merkel embodies in her person both elements of great political stature and ordinariness. While US magazine Forbes just named Merkel the world's most powerful woman for the seventh time, in September she lost badly in Germany's federal election. Merkel's grand coalition, made up of her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), lost 14 percentage points.
And yet, Merkel did not resign. Instead, she's now aiming for a fourth term as Germany's chancellor. Merkel and her CDU are the only political force strong enough to form a government — with whomever that will be. But the days when she ruled the country with the air of a president are over. At home, her popularity has waned. Abroad, she's a hero.
Merkel – the international hero
For instance in Iceland. Here, at an international women's conference, Merkel still has plenty of fans. Like one member of the Jordanian parliament, who told us: "The women of Jordan pray for Frau Merkel." Perplexed, we inquired why that is so. The MP, who holds a PhD and lived in the US for an extended period, explained: "Because we want Frau Merkel to stay in office." Then, she began quizzing us: "What are Angela Merkel's odds? How could she form a government?"
Her neighbor works for an international university in Bahrain and added: "We Arabs are thankful or what Angela Merkel has done. She's a hero to us for the way she acted during the refugee crisis." These days, Germans abroad are inevitably asked: "Will Angela Merkel remain chancellor?" As if a fourth term as chancellor were somehow a life or death matter for world affairs.
Apparently, few can imagine Germany without Merkel, who first came to power in 2005. In these turbulent times of Trump, Putin, Erdogan and Brexit, many regard her as a bedrock of stability. But not all share this view.
Little European sympathy for Merkel's diminished power
Gisela Stuart, a British Labour politician with German roots, openly welcomed the collapse of coalition talks between Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Greens. Merkel's defeat provided a much needed breather for the Brits from protracted Brexit negotiations — in which Merkel is taking tough stance.
In France, Merkel's weak electoral result means Germany is no longer the powerful European ally Paris so desires. Advancing European affairs could be in jeopardy. Still, France hopes Merkel will embark on a fourth term as chancellor.
She seems able to keep her calm under any circumstances — known for her fear of dogs, she kept it under wraps here
This is not the case in Italy. The country's most important media outlets criticize Merkel's refugee stance, blame her for having underestimated Brexit, and argue a fourth term as chancellor would be a mistake. But Merkel does receive support from an unexpected backer: Silvio Berlusconi. He values her political survival skills and ability to guarantee stability.
In Turkey, where Merkel was perceived as Europe's foremost leader, her reputation has taken a hit. In the context of recent German-Turkish tensions, pro-Erdogan media are reporting on Merkel's misfortune with thinly-veiled schadenfreude.
Russian media strike a similar note. State-run Russia Today calls Merkel "Europe's iron lady" – which isn't meant as a compliment.
Critics within Merkel's own party
Within Merkel's CDU party, high-ranking party members have largely kept their misgivings over her loss of power to themselves. Thus far, there has been silence from party leaders regarding her new, weakened role. But further down, among the rank-and-file, discontent is certainly being voiced. In the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, once a CDU stronghold but now governed by a premier from the Green party, CDU members no longer feel represented by Merkel. Many complain that she is ignoring the party's traditionally conservative roots.
Over the past two years, since the large influx of refugees into Germany, CDU party members who sought to veer off course soon paid the political price. Saxony's premier Stanislaw Tillich was concerned about the party's conservative profile. But very few publicly backed him and he has since resigned. Then there was the rebellious Wolfgang Bosbach, a specialist on domestic affairs, and diligent Merkel critic. He was a popular talk show guest but remained isolated within the party. Interestingly, Merkel's staunchest supporters seem to come from the opposing political camp. Many Greens in particular are enthusiastic about her humane stance on refugees and have long since incorporated it into their platform.
Merkel has faced tough political times after the coalition talks with the Greens and Free Democrats failed
Abroad, Merkel is without domestic party support
Back to Iceland's international women's conference. Here, we also met the foreign policy adviser to Lithuania's president, who stressed how much Merkel supported the country in the past. And the Bolivian members of parliament say they regard Merkel as a friend of Latin America and a role model for gender equality.
All this praise being heaped on Merkel was a bit much for us. So we talked about previous German chancellors, praised the power of democracy and admitted that, yes, Merkel does have her fair share of domestic critics.
But that fell on deaf ears. Helen Clark, who for many years served as New Zealand's prime minister and until April acted as the administrator of the United Nations Development Program, asked us about Merkel's various coalition options, and how a fourth term with her in power would be feasible.
These questions came as a surprise to us. After all, Clark is a member of New Zealand's Labour party, which is affiliated to Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), Merkel's political adversaries. One would not suspect Clark to be a Merkel fan. But internationally, Merkel is no longer perceived a member of her conservative CDU party. Merkel, it seems, has become a political actor without equal.