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Angela Merkel: world's most powerful woman a German enigma

Chancellor Angela Merkel, the unassuming German proclaimed Europe's most influential leader and the world's most powerful woman, inspires a heady mix of admiration, derision and fear.

world Updated: Sep 01, 2013 11:53 IST

Chancellor Angela Merkel, the unassuming German proclaimed Europe's most influential leader and the world's most powerful woman, inspires a heady mix of admiration, derision and fear.

After eight years at the helm of the top European economy, and three as the go-to leader in the eurozone crisis, Merkel looks set to sail to a third term in the September 22 German general election on the back of her enormous popularity among voters.

Meanwhile abroad, angry protesters have marched through the streets of Athens, Lisbon and Madrid blaming her for budget cuts they say are choking off desperately needed economic growth, some even brandishing caricatures of Merkel in Nazi garb.

Yet few deny that any solutions are, for now, impossible without the 59-year-old woman nicknamed "Mutti" or mum in Germany.

"I am determined to see Europe emerge stronger from the crisis," she intones regularly. "Germany can only be strong with a strong Europe."

But during a widely criticised campaign virtually devoid of real issues, observers complain that she has lulled the prosperous country into a false sense of security 23 years after its joyful reunification.

"Merkel perfectly embodies the sensibilities of the Germans in the early 21st century, " the publisher of the influential weekly Die Zeit, Josef Joffe, wrote last month.

"You don't have to expect any threatening new tacks from her, no tough decisions for or against. She is perfectly predictable in her flexibility and the risk-averse electorate loves it. Merkel is us, and we are Merkel."

Her late biographer Gerd Langguth found a "sphinx-like quality" in her, allowing her to quietly triumph in the most unlikely circumstances.

Merkel dispensed with rivals in her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) despite being a misfit in a party of mainly Roman Catholic family men from the wealthy southwest.

Merkel, a twice-married childless Protestant raised in communist East Germany, has since become the unchallenged conservative leader of her generation.

Swabian housewife

The girl born Angela Kasner in 1954 left Hamburg, in then West Germany, a few weeks after her birth when her Protestant preacher father decided to tend to the flock in the East.

Locals remember her fierce intellect and discretion as a Christian in a totalitarian state.

She earned a physics doctorate, married and divorced fellow student Ulrich Merkel, and stayed out of politics until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

In 1990 she joined the CDU and won her first parliamentary seat.

Then chancellor Helmut Kohl made her minister for women's issues and later environmental affairs, and bestowed on her the fond but patronising nickname "the girl".

But in 2000, the frumpy newcomer rose to the head of the CDU when she alone had the courage to tell Kohl to quit as party chairman over a slush fund scandal.

In 2005 she unseated Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after seven years in power, becoming Germany's first female chancellor as well as its youngest.

She is also the only woman to lead a major European power since Margaret Thatcher of Britain.

During her first term, Merkel presided over a loveless "grand coalition" between the conservatives and their traditional rivals, the SPD.

Her decisive victory in the 2009 vote allowed her to drop the SPD in favour of the smaller, pro-business Free Democrats, in theory giving her more scope to set her own course.

However, their alliance has been fractious, undermining its popularity even as Merkel has consolidated her own standing.

Forbes magazine has named her the world's most powerful woman for seven out of the last eight years, and she insists despite the friction that hers is the "most successful government since reunification" in 1990.

But wary of grand visions, the pragmatic Merkel frequently faces accusations of doing little with the power in her hands.

A lover of German opera, French red wine and walking holidays in the Italian mountains, Merkel has repeatedly pointed to the iconic Swabian housewife -- a paragon of thrift and self-control -- as her model.

Indeed she shuns the trappings of power, wearing boxy trouser suits, spending precious free weekends in her spartan dacha north of Berlin, and doing her own shopping at a discount supermarket near her home in the city centre.

Meanwhile her husband since 1998, chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, is so publicity-shy he opted not to attend Merkel's inauguration in 2005.

Critics say her own science background leads her to scrutinise the minutiae and at times dither, which in the euro crisis has left ailing European partners to twist in the wind. Rivals also find her chameleon-like qualities exasperating.

Merkel was a staunch defender of nuclear power until Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011, prompting a dizzying about-face that has seen her pledge to phase out all of Germany's nuclear power reactors by 2022.

She has said that while she finds some of the most virulent criticism of her unfair, she lets it wash over her as the price of power.

First Published: Sep 01, 2013 11:48 IST