German Chancellor Angela Merkel marks a decade in power on Sunday, with the refugee crisis representing her biggest challenge since she was sworn in as the nation’s first female leader in 2005.
Berlin (dpa) – Two years ago, German chancellor Angela Merkel won a resounding election victory following her deft handling of the euro debt crisis, establishing her as Europe’s paramount leader.
But now, widespread disquiet triggered by her handling of the refugee crisis is posing the biggest threat to her political authority since she was sworn in as Germany’s first woman chancellor ten years ago on Sunday.
“She is certainly in trouble,” said Heribert Dieter, an analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“She will have to work hard to regain the position she held in Europe (before the refugee crisis),” he said.
As leader of Europe’s biggest economy, Merkel has built up considerable political capital and respect as a crisis manager.
This follows her success in steering Germany through both the global financial crisis and the Greek debt crisis. She has also been praised for using her fluent Russian to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine crisis.
“Merkel’s central image for Germans is that of a crisis manager,” said Oskar Niedermayer, political analyst at Berlin Free University.
A trained scientist from communist East Germany, Merkel’s skill on the international stage has helped her to build on united Germany’s new political role, which chancellors have pursued since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 year ago.
This turned the 61-year-old pastor’s daughter into the world’s most powerful woman, according to Forbes magazine.
But Merkel’s decision less than three months ago to open Germany’s borders to asylum seekers has sparked sharp criticism from within the ranks of her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian-based sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The disquiet between the traditional CDU-CSU bedfellows also reflects signs of growing concerns among the wider German population as to whether the country can cope with the influx of migrants into the nation, which are likely to top 1 million this year.
Friday’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris could give the chancellor a chance to deploy again her much-celebrated crisis management and leadership skills.
Merkel was to lead her cabinet to a football match between Germany and the Netherlands on Tuesday night in the western German city of Hanover as a show of force in the face of global terrorism. But the match was cancelled due to a bomb threat.
Growing fears about a new wave of terrorist attacks similar to the bloodbath in the French capital also carry their own risks for the German leader.
Parts of the electorate could become convinced that there are terrorists lurking among the thousands of refugees currently entering Germany on a daily basis.
A majority (52 per cent) of voters were unhappy with her handing of the refugee crisis even before the Paris attacks, according to a poll released last week by German public service broadcaster ZDF.
The chancellor’s stance on refugees is not the first time that she has shaken up Germany’s political establishment.
In 2011, in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, she suddenly mounted a political U-turn, dropping her support for atomic energy and announcing plans to end nuclear power in Germany.
Now, after regularly topping polls as Germany’s most popular politician, support for both Merkel and the CDU-CSU alliance has dwindled. Meanwhile, support for the populist, anti-asylum Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has sharply risen, setting alarm bells ringing across her political bloc.
Merkel faces an early test of her party support on Friday when she fronts the annual congress of the CSU, which has been leading the attacks on her migration policy.
CSU leader and Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer has described Merkel’s open-arms policy for refugees as “a mistake.”
The CSU conference is followed next month by the annual conference of Merkel’s CDU.
Most political commentators believe that Merkel will run for a fourth term as chancellor in the national elections set for 2017.
Despite the political turmoil over refugees, Merkel does not face any leadership challenge, partly because she has managed to dispose of any rivals during her rise to power and her years as chancellor.
This includes a one-time star of the CDU, Friedrich Merz, conservative headliner Roland Koch and former state premier, Christian Wulff, who all lost out in party battles with Merkel.
“There is not a power struggle in the CDU,” Niedermayer said. “Party members only want her to change course (on refugees).”
Victory at the 2017 election would mean another four years at the top for Merkel, rivalling her one-time mentor Helmut Kohl as the longest serving chancellor since the 19th century German leader Otto von Bismarck.
However, Merkel’s grasp on power could be severely tested if the refugee crisis prompts voters to go against the CDU in three key state elections scheduled for March.
Nevertheless, many of her fellow politicians have paid a high political price for underestimating her.
A hallmark of Merkel’s time on the German political stage has been her very keen instinct for power, which should help to preserve her place in the chancellor’s office for sometime.