The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

All the upheaval of 2016 captured in a single photo

This one photo captures the political upheaval of 2016 (Video: Rick Noack, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

LONDON — In the run-up to the Italian referendum and the Austrian elections Sunday, observers asked their opinion on the two crucial votes often said: “It's 2016, so everything is possible.”

To put things into perspective, it helps to take a look at the photo above, which was taken April 25 this year in Hanover, Germany. To discuss security issues, five powerful world leaders had come together: then-British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Two of them (Cameron and Renzi) have since announced their resignation. Two others are on their way out of office (Hollande and Obama). Merkel, still defiant, is fighting a resurgent right-wing movement at home. It's fair to say that the Western world we lived in earlier this year has changed quite a bit.

When the photo above started circulating after a tweet by polling expert Will Jordan on Sunday night, some of those who shared it might have felt a sense of nostalgia.

It is hard to escape the irony of that photo: Two of the leaders shown (Britain's Cameron and Italy's Renzi) had to resign because they decided to call referendums on issues they felt certain they would win. Instead, their political careers have crashed, at least for the foreseeable future.

One of them (France's Hollande) is now so unpopular, with an approval rating of 4 percent, that he did not even attempt to run for a second term. His predecessor, the also deeply unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy, had never fallen below the 30 percent benchmark.

The reason French President Hollande won’t seek reelection, in one chart

The fourth leader (Obama), saw his chosen successor defeated in an election upset by a fiery populist who has vowed to undo much of Obama's legacy, resulting in the mantle of “leaders of the free world” passing to Europe.

That's the title Merkel is now being introduced with increasingly often. Although she has expressed discomfort with being called the “leader of the free world” and has said that German chancellors were not in a position to change much at all, her statement has more been interpreted as an attempt to calm fears of a dominating Germany in a Europe where far-right movements opposed to Berlin are in resurgence.

So, as of December, what are the lessons of this tumultuous year? Why is Merkel, who has led Germany for 11 years now, still in power whereas most other Western leaders have been replaced?

Merkel's biggest advantage might also be her biggest flaw: One of the German chancellor's most distinct character traits has been to often wait longer than others before making a decision. Although she has been criticized for her leadership style for putting the nation into a “deep sleep” by refraining from clashing with her opponents, 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.

One of her most politically courageous decisions, to take in almost 1 million refugees in 2015, was also her most consequential one: emboldening the far-right movement she is now fighting.

Hollande has tried a similar strategy by trying to appeal to both the left wing as well as to the conservatives by turns. In his case, voters perceived his tactic as indecisiveness, though. Merkel's strategy to counter far-right movements in the Western world may not be applicable elsewhere, after all.

Read more: 

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