BERLIN (Reuters) – Weeks before an era-defining national election, Germans are missing Chancellor Angela Merkel already, praising her calm and stabilising influence as they prepare with a mix of hope and trepidation for life under a new leader for the first time in 16 years.
Four-time chancellor Merkel, who is stepping down after the Sept. 26 ballot, has stood large on the European stage almost since taking office in 2005 – when George W. Bush was U.S. president, Jacques Chirac in the Elysee Palace in Paris and Tony Blair British prime minister.
Armed with a doctorate in quantum chemistry, Merkel has used a pragmatic, problem-solving approach to government to help navigate Germany and Europe through the euro zone crisis, a huge influx of migrants in 2015 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She is clear, she is intelligent and I miss her already,” Birgit Dieck, walking through central Berlin, said of a woman often known as ‘Mutti’, or mum, and regularly rated Germany’s – and indeed the continent’s – favourite politician.
“She is always there. She has been like a home from home.”
Under Merkel, Germany has gone from being labelled the “sick man of Europe” to economic powerhouse – though it remains deeply divided on east-west lines and the one-million-plus migrant arrivals of 2015 boosted the far-right, fracturing the political landscape.
The daughter of a Protestant pastor, Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany before taking the helm of a predominantly male, Catholic western German party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
“As the first woman chancellor, I think people were sceptical,” Maria Luisa Schill, from near Freiburg in southwest Germany’s Black Forest, said of Merkel, who on Wednesday described herself as a feminist.
Schill valued Merkel’s crisis-management skills.
“She is a person that you see as your anchor in the storm, that you trust. I think she did a good job,” added Schill, strolling in front of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate.
For many younger Germans, however, Merkel’s successes are largely rooted in the past, and they say she has not done enough to address climate change, improve education or move her country into the digital age.
“I think the biggest topic is climate change and not just Merkel, the whole government missed the moment,” said Maxim, 18, who declined to give his surname.
Merkel’s would-be successor from the CDU, Armin Laschet, promises “steadfastness”.
But his a pitch is failing to win over voters reut.rs/3BKK1fB worried about global warming, immigration and COVID-19, and his Social Democrat rivals have overtaken him and his party in the polls.
What looked just a few weeks ago like a comfortable win for Merkel and Laschet’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc is now a tight race, with multiple potential coalitions reut.rs/3DIzZNV possible.
“I feel some trepidation at what is coming,” said Manfred Haas from Nuremberg. “What do I hope for? Some stability in the future, but I am afraid it is going to go in the opposite direction.”
Writing by Paul Carrel; editing by John Stonestreet