WORLD. WOMAN. LEADER. A profile feature by Victoria Krüger
This series features Angela Merkel - the outgoing chancellor of Germany.
It was his very last phone call as 44th president of the United States that he dedicated to her. Describing her as ‘outstanding’, Obama expressed an “appreciation for their personal friendship”. President Donald Trump - the following president - also paid her ‘great respect’. Across the globe, President Putin stressed that it was due to her efforts for the past 16 years that Russia had “key partners in Europe” and the entire world. The term ‘old friend’ had been conferred on her by President Xi Jinping; an expression of honour used by Chinese leaders throughout time for leaders such as Fidel Castro and Ex-President Richard Nixon. The praise does not end here: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa thanked her endeavours, expressing "we will greatly miss you”, Guinean President Alpha Conde asserted "Africa has really gained leadership” through her country’s support.
Who is this woman? Who is the leader, who is is considered capable of connecting various rival parties of the world? How did she climb the ladder to the world’s political top in a male-dominated sphere? How can we understand her style of leadership? This profile feature shall examine and explore these questioned in turn. Why continue reading? Even if some might say that her political record is not spotless, we can learn from her. Her story tells us a lot about leadership and strength.
The fact that Merkel started her tenure in 2005 is remarkable. Today’s political sphere remains dominated by men. Germany belongs to the 6.7% of countries whose government is headed by a woman in 2020. In 1960 Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female prime minister in Sri Lanka. It is remarkable that in the short space of time, Madam Merkel was able to reach the top of 6 the political hierarchy. One might wonder which factors influenced Madam Merkel’s rise to power in 2005. To answer this question, it is advantageous to take a step back.
The evening the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Madam Merkel was enjoying a sauna. This is often referred to and is probably one of the slightly funny facts about her political engagement. Nonetheless, it simply seems to be one more evidence of her practicality: Thursdays equalled sauna. However, Germany’s reunification impacted her life profoundly as she became strongly invested in politics.
Shortly before the unification, Merkel had joined a newly-founded Democratic Awakening movement which later merged with the western CDU party. Some scholars point at her aversion to other parties’ informalities as a reason for why Merkel joined the CDU. Another interesting theory revolves around the idea that the corporatist catch-all party structure of the CDU attracted her and lastly aided in lifting her to the top of the party. Catch-all parties are characterised by a broad electoral base, with “important societal interest groups […] organised and represented within the party”. As the name implies: they try to catch them all. However, the party suffered from electoral losses, especially among women. Internal documents of the party explicitly highlighted the need for women in party committee positions. Diverse party leadership was needed. Under the party management of former chancellor Helmut Kohl, the party set out a gender quorum, stipulating women make up one-third of party offices in 1996. Beyond fulfilling this quota, Merkel satisfied an unofficial eastern and protestant quota as well - she fulfilled the ‘triple quota’. Helmut Kohl enabled Merkel to advance quickly in the party: after her entering the German parliament in 1990, she was appointed Minister of Women and Youth. She was nicknamed ‘Kohl's girl’ by that time, referring to Kohl's patronage. Nevertheless, it was her sharp political skill, expertise and wait-and-see strategy that has kept her in power. After a series of internal party turmoils, she became General Secretary in 1998 and in 2002, party chair.
A testament to her political maverick, Merkel stayed in office for 16 years - her tenure has lasted four U.S presidents and five UK prime ministers. Beyond, it is surprising that she has remained the most powerful woman for 13 out of 14 years and she is considered the fourth most powerful person in the world in 2021. To examine these facts a little further, we shall have a look at her leadership style from an intersectional and power dynamics perspective. Many scholars trace Merkel’s leadership style back to her upbringing in eastern Germany. So, let’s start there.
Angela Dorothea Kasner was born in Hamburg in 1954. Shortly after her birth, her father, a Lutheran pastor, took a job in east Berlin. She, therefore, grew up in eastern Germany during the German Democratic Republic, in the communist part of Germany policed by the oppressive Stasi. Madam Merkel combines four distinct identities that contributed to her fast advancements in the CDU party. She is an east German scientifically-trained woman and CDU chancellor. The intersection of these identities is most fundamental to understanding her leadership and how she differs from other male and female leaders.
Some might argue that Merkel’s success in a male-dominated sphere lies in restraint from siding with feminist leaders in public or placing a special emphasis on ‘women's issues. They often refer to Madam 12 Merkel as an ‘honorary man’, allowing her to blend in with politics. During her power rise, the media often commented on her “bland hairstyle, her drab appearance, her subservience to Kohl and her overall ‘greyness’ as a candidate.” Whilst Germany is lagging behind in advancing women in leadership positions, such blatant judgement seems decontextualised. Gender roles in the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were quite different. In the GDR, women played an integral part in the workforce. Whilst women in the GDR were portrayed as wives and mothers they were also treated equally in public, western women however were often reduced to the role of housewives. After the collapse of the Berlin wall, no major independent feminist movement originated from the east, but in the west. Such contextualisation allows understanding as to why Merkel herself finds feminism largely ‘boring’. From her perspective, women were interested in practicality; “I don't come from the feminist scene but instead I believe the majority of women are interested in very practical things.”
During her time in office, Merkel has placed a greater emphasis on advancing policies for working women. Moreover, Madam Merkel has a PhD in physics. For her undergraduate studies, she moved to Leipzig and later worked for the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Merkel’s selection of public policies is greatly influenced by her analytical thinking: her extensive scientific training is reflected in her selection of public policies and her decision making - she drew on a “range of evidence rather than single-mindedly pushing through a predetermined agenda”. Or putting it into her words: ‘think, consult, decide’. Such an analytical 15 16 approach, her contemplative style of policy-making oftentimes lead commentators to describe Merkel as too pragmatic, lacking charisma. However, such assumptions might actually have served her an advantage: she appeals to ordinary people. Chancellor Merkel was nicknamed mummy or ‘Mutti’ - such familiarity with a leader is seldom if not unique. Furthermore, reflecting on Merkel’s later leadership, she considered a variety of different perspectives and adopted a style of collaboration and consensus. Her approach is of note given her upbringing in a state of oppression and state surveillance.
On the world stage she is known as a trustworthy and competent partner; described by Obama as providing ‘strong, courageous, and steady leadership’. While she is not a fan of Putin’s persona she puts great emphasis on continuing dialogue with Russia, speaking in impeccable Russian. She also learned to avoid overt confrontation and to keep strategically silent. These features reflect her rationality and calmness.
She could be hardly shaken in her self-possession and kept her private life entirely out of the media. Only once did her personal life enter the media landscape when her ex-husband publicly supported Chancellor Merkel’s decision on the 2015 refugee crisis. Lastly, Chancellor Merkel has enjoyed incredibly high approval ratings: 75% of adults across fourteen European countries trust Merkel’s leadership the most. Over her 16 years of tenure, her popularity has remained high - a testament to her authenticity.
Angela Merkel’s rise to power and style of leadership must not be confused with her policy decisions. Whilst a majority of her decisions must have enjoyed approval (otherwise causing a dent in her reputation), not all of her decisions have been undisputed and she has found herself criticised. However, a resume on her political legacy is another story to tell. This article featured women; their rise to power and leadership. A style of leadership resonating with world leaders and on a domestic level. A leadership the world needs.