BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday announced her intention to seek a fourth term in office, even as she downplayed her ability to be a stabilizing global force in the unpredictable age of Donald Trump.
Merkel, 62, is Europe’s most influential leader, a political centrist in the vein of President Obama, her close and longtime ally. Her stature and diplomatic clout — along with her strong stance on equality and tolerance – have led observers to call her a potential counterpoint to rising nationalism and populism on both sides of the Atlantic.
Merkel on Sunday said she was flattered by those calling for her to assume the global mantle of liberal democracy following Obama’s departure. But she also called it “grotesque” and “absurd” to assume that one person can make a difference in a rapidly changing world.
Speaking about a global situation that is “realigning” after Trump’s election, particularly in regard to Russia, she said, “No person alone, not even the most experienced, can turn things to good in Germany, Europe and the world, especially not a chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.”
Nevertheless, Merkel said, she had made a decision to run again after “endless deliberation,” in part to work in favor of political dialogue that is not characterized by “hate.” She seemed to suggest no other candidate could serve as a match for these “insecure times.”
“People would have little understanding if I would not again bring to bear all the gifts and talents which were given to me to do my duty for Germany,” she said at the party headquarters of her center-right Christian Democrats in Berlin.
By merely announcing, Merkel becomes the early favorite if not a shoe-in to win next year’s vote, a triumph that would make her Germany’s longest serving leader since Helmut Kohl presided over German reunification and the end of the Cold War.
But the methodical Merkel will also find herself swimming against the tide of resurgent nationalism, including in Germany. Although buoyed by this nation’s vast economic strength, she faces a serious backlash from her decision last year to take in nearly a million refugees from the Middle East. She must also contend with voter fatigue with political elites and incumbents.
“It’s true, economically Germany is doing better than ever before under her chancellorship,” commentator Ludwig Greven wrote Sunday in Zeit Online. “But social division has increased significantly. More and more people feel left behind and are afraid of the consequences of globalization. To that, Merkel has no answer.”
When Merkel first took office in 2005, George W. Bush was in the White House, Tony Blair inhabited No. 10 Downing Street and Jacques Chirac held court at the Elysee Palace.
The last one standing is Merkel, a pragmatist raised in former communist East Germany , a physicist who became Europe’s decider. She has guided Germany to the height of its post-World War II clout, but has done so in a non-threatening way that has almost always emphasized consensus building.
“I think now that Trump has won, she feels a special responsibility,” said Jürgen W. Falter, political scientist at the University of Mainz. “If Trump actually begins to conduct foreign policy as erratically and spontaneously as it appeared during his campaign…[Merkel] role will be to try to calm things down.”
Merkel is no stranger to crisis – having, for better or worse, shouldered the brunt of Europe’s handling of the Greek debt crisis, as well as the standoff with Moscow over its intervention in Ukraine. But victory would mean difficult new challenges for Merkel — most importantly how to move forward with Britain’s vote to exit from the European Union without tearing the bloc apart. And if Marine Le Pen, from France’s far-right National Front, stages an upset in next year’s elections in France, Merkel would find herself – and her centrist politics – more regionally isolated than ever before.
On the plus side, Merkel still enjoys enviable approval ratings of between 55 and 59 percent at home. But her popularity is no longer at the stratospheric levels seen years ago. Although she has since toughened her stance on migrants, she has taken a hit over her handling of the refugee crisis.
The political fallout has played into the hands of the anti-establishment, far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), an upstart party which has racked up wins in key local elections this year. They are now vowing to pull out the stops against her re-election.
“Germany can’t afford a further term in office by Angela Merkel,” AfD chairwomen Frauke Petry tweeted on Sunday.
If Merkel does win a fourth term, it might be due to the lack of a major rival. One former possibility, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now seems content to pursue the largely ceremonial position of president. That leaves names like Sigmar Gabriel , the colorful deputy chancellor from her junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, and possibly Martin Schulz, the current president of the E.U.’s parliament. But both men — and any other hopefuls — would first need to somehow break through Merkel’s aura of political invincibility and the respect many Germans hold for her.
“Germans like Merkel because she represents the calm demeanor of the professional,” said Jackson Janes, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University “No drama — only duty.”