Angela Merkel did it as the far-right rose, in her country and elsewhere. She also compromised

It is easy to forget, 16 years on, how significant it was for a woman to lead a traditionally male-dominated polity

In the run-up to the elections in Germany, a video from 1997 of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel surfaced on social media. Then, as the country’s environment minister, Merkel outlined the impending climate crisis, the effects it was bound to have on the economy, displacement of populations and many of the myriad effects of global warming we see today. As the leader of Germany for 16 years — and the symbol of liberal centrism (even status quo-ism) and European unity — that video highlighted for many both Merkel’s best qualities and where she fell short.

It is easy to forget, 16 years on, how significant it was for a woman to lead a traditionally male-dominated polity. Or, now that Donald Trump has been voted out of office and Brexit is done and dusted, what it meant to stand up for liberal values even as the far-right in her country and elsewhere gained ground. Under Merkel, the beleaguered centre held its own. On the other hand, Merkel’s tenure has also been marked by strategic silences and compromises, domestically and internationally. For example, on the rights of Muslims and LQBTQI+ identity matters — the latter has become an election issue — Merkel avoided wading into controversy. Or, put another way, perhaps due to political exigencies, the Chancellor has not stood up at times for those who needed her to. The same centrism has marked her attitude to both Russia and China, integral as they were to German energy and trading needs. But perhaps Merkel’s most important quality was that she projected reason and stability. Her popularity soared again during the pandemic, as she listened to the scientists and communicated with the people clearly.

The 1997 video has brought home to many how prescient the Chancellor had been about climate change, arguably the greatest existential threat humankind faces, and how, in office, she could have done much more. Perhaps, that is the burden of all centrists, especially those managing coalition governments.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 26, 2021 under the title ‘Holding the centre’.

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