In Crisis, Angela Merkel Fights To Lead Germany

She steered the country past Europe's economic crisis. What the Chancellor has left to prove

Zhang Fan / Chine Nouvelle / Sipa

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets her supporters outside a studio ahead of the TV debate in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 1, 2013.

Angela Merkel, Germany's first female Chancellor and the first raised behind the Iron Curtain, has already gone down in history as a trailblazer. Now, after nearly eight years in charge of Europe's richest nation, with her policies affecting the entire euro zone and rippling outward around the globe, she is pushing for a third four-year term. She may succeed. That alone makes her remarkable. The euro-zone crisis has derailed or damaged most leaders in its vortex. Merkel has thrived.

The German economy is giving her a helping hand. The latest data show a narrow budget surplus, moderate growth and unemployment at 6.8%, close to its lowest ebb in two decades. To enjoy similar prosperity — and in return for German largesse — the weaker euro-zone nations must reform. That is Merkel's mantra. "Solidarity makes sense if we all work to become better, fitter," she tells the Recklinghausen crowds. "Otherwise we'll become weaker together."

Her critics say that is happening already on Merkel's watch, and that her record of incrementalism will lose her the election. She seeks to counter their attacks with something rarely seen in postwar Germany — a campaign based on personality. That's startling because Merkel, under close scrutiny since she took the CDU's helm in 2000, remains an enigma. More than any other Chancellor of modern times, Merkel is Germany, personifying the nation's seemingly contradictory impulses — to be a world power and, at the same time, keep a low profile.

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