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How Angela Merkel, a conservative, became the ‘leader of the free world’

In a combo photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel leads the weekly cabinet meeting of her government at the Chancellery in Berlin. Merkel has been at the helm of the German government since 2005 and wants to add a fourth four-year term. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

One of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's most distinct character traits has been to often wait longer than others before making a decision. And these cautious ways have served her well: sidelining many critics or rivals as Germany awaited her views and allowing her time to study the political winds and change course when necessary.

On Sunday, the politician who has led the German government for the past 11 years decided it was time to announce her perhaps most ambitious project: a bid for a fourth term as chancellor.

Already in 2013, there were rumors about Merkel's resigning even before the end of her third term. But political observers in Berlin had clearly underestimated the determination of the German chancellor, who was once criticized for putting the nation into a “deep sleep” by refraining from clashing with her opponents. Now, she is being hailed as the “leader of the free world” on social media and by some commentators as the Obama era nears its end, Britain is beset by upheavals over plans to leave the European Union and France faces its own break-the-mold populist surge.

Despite making unpopular decisions such as allowing nearly 1 million refugees to enter the country last year, her approval ratings remain higher than those of her opponents.

In the eyes of many, the victory of Donald Trump has made Merkel perhaps the most influential individual in the West who is not a populist.

But as Merkel has shifted to the left of the political spectrum, she has opened up a gap to her right.

In Germany, Merkel is now also confronted with a strengthened far-right movement, the anti-establishment Alternative for Germany (AfD). It is a party that might not exist if Merkel had stuck to more traditional party ideologies. During 11 years of her chancellorship, the conservative politician became a champion of liberal values, winning over more left-wing Germans but alienating some of her more traditional supporters.

Merkel seeks fourth term as German chancellor as economy slows (Video: Reuters)

Speaking Sunday, Merkel specified that the resurgence of a political discourse characterized by “hate” was one of the reasons she had decided to run again. She also lowered expectations by saying it was “absurd” to believe that she alone would be able to turn the populist momentum. “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,” she said.

Some would argue that she has previously proved the opposite.

Merkel announces reelection bid in ‘insecure times’

Merkel's rise to power gained momentum in 2000, when she was elected head of the conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU), after a donation scandal in which much of the party's leadership was forced to resign.

It was a time during which Merkel championed conservative policy stances she now opposes. For instance, in 2002, she passed a party manifesto filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric. “Immigration cannot be a solution for Germany's demographic changes. ... Increased immigration would threaten the inner peace and help radical forces gain power,” it read.

Although Merkel tried to stabilize her party in the early 2000s, her public image suffered. Meanwhile, Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder implemented sweeping, unpopular measures to make Germany's economy more competitive.

It was Merkel who benefited from those reforms. She took office in 2005, about three years before the financial crisis would hit Germany and the world. Merkel's politics back then was unspectacular, but she knew how to appeal to her core supporter base. In 2006, she headed an effort to establish Christianity as a core value of the European Union.

Merkel seeks fourth term as German chancellor as economy slows (Video: Reuters)

Her approval ratings were on the rise but took a hit after the financial crisis that cost thousands of jobs in Germany in 2009 and 2010. It took Merkel until 2013 to restore her support to pre-crash levels.

In 2011, the Fukushima power plant disaster in Japan shocked the world, but it had its most consequential effect in Germany, where Merkel decided to reverse her own decision and to abandon nuclear energy in the long term.

That had been a goal of Germany's more left-wing parties for decades. Within a few days, Merkel destroyed one of their core differences and stunned liberal voters. Merkel sensed that Germany had turned more liberal than her party was willing to acknowledge.

The “Fukushima moment” repeated itself in 2015, when Merkel refused to close the borders of Germany amid an influx of refugees. Contrary to previous statements, she said last year: “Islam belongs to Germany.” Her selfies with refugees defined weeks of enthusiasm in the country.

Those weeks, though, could now become Merkel's biggest weakness. Her approval ratings have declined, with the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, sex assaults on women committed by immigrants, and a wave of terrorist attacks this summer.

Few consider the right-wing Alternative for Germany party strong enough to become a real threat to Merkel's ambitions for a fourth term. In the long run, though, Merkel's decision not to champion traditional conservative policy stances could have a lasting effect on German politics.

Her party used to test the limits of how far to the right a German conservative party can go. That is no longer the case and now a space has opened up that, depending on the mood of the voters, could be exploited.