German leader Merkel goes from glories to disgrace

It was only nine months ago that Forbes magazine named German Chancellor Angela Merkel the world`s most powerful woman for the fourth year in a row.

Updated: May 29, 2010, 22:33 PM IST

Berlin: It was only nine months ago that Forbes magazine named German Chancellor Angela Merkel the world`s most powerful woman for the fourth year in a row.
She impressed Germans and foreigners alike with her ascent to power — an East German pastor`s daughter who took control of the male-dominated conservative party and won elections in Europe`s economic powerhouse, becoming Germany`s first female chancellor in 2005.

She was lauded for hosting the world`s top leaders at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007 with ease and professionalism; she repaired relations with the United States after they were strained over the Iraq war; and she positioned herself as a political heavyweight on the continent. It seemed that no major political and economic decision could be made in Europe without Merkel`s approval.

But over the last few months, the German chancellor`s handling of the continent`s economic crisis has turned her into someone widely disliked at home and increasingly isolated and even reviled abroad.

On the international stage, Merkel, 55, has been criticized for dragging her feet for months in putting her support behind a bailout package for Greece and being much too focused on German national interests.

"For months, Mrs. Merkel resisted all appeals — by other European leaders and Washington — to, well, be a European leader," The New York Times wrote in an editorial published Wednesday.

Influenced by German state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia in early May, she tried to postponed a decision on the bailout until after the elections. In the end, her European partners pushed her into supporting the rescue package just days before the elections and Merkel`s party lost the state elections.

"This (behavior) shows a fatal German inclination for isolationist acting that one had thought belonged to the past," German daily Tagesspiegel wrote in an editorial Saturday. "This does not only make our partners suspicious of us, but is also completely senseless in today`s globally connected world."

Now, like her colleagues in Greece, Spain or Italy, Merkel is struggling to prepare a worried populace for budget cuts soon. The chancellor has already scrapped plans for promised tax cuts, but still faces a huge federal budget deficit. Her government is going to decide on spending cuts and, possibly, even on tax hikes within the next 10 days.

"For weeks, you`ve tried to sit on the fence and not get involved," opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the left-leaning Social Democrats told Merkel during a recent debate about the Greek rescue package in parliament. "You`ve let things slide and now that everything is ablaze, you`re calling for the firefighters to solve the problem."

Domestic critics have noted repeatedly that her new coalition hasn`t done much impressive work in the seven months since it took control. Her popularity among Germans has plummeted by 10 points to 48 percent — her worst showing since late 2006.

Opposition lawmakers accuse the chancellor of lacking any kind of vision or leadership when it comes to essential issues like an aging population, integrating immigrants into mainstream society or tackling the question of whether to continue using nuclear energy in Germany.

Merkel has not responded directly to the criticism and her office could not immediately be reached for comment on Saturday.

Merkel`s unilateral ban earlier this month on naked short-selling of eurozone government debt and shares of major financial companies, received praise, but also criticism because she made the decision without consulting Berlin`s eurozone partners.

"Germany is still the most important economic power on the continent," Tagesspiegel wrote. "But while other powers used to look at Merkel for orientation during the days of Heiligendamm, today she seems to be confused and changing her position according to the influential powers around her."

Of 1,000 people surveyed by Infratest dimap this week, 58 percent said they thought the previous government of Merkel`s conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats would be better than the current coalition Merkel formed in October with the business-oriented Free Democrats.

Only 34 percent said Merkel`s government had made the right decisions to counter the crisis.

Bureau Report