But August 2009 was different. The Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women in the world had just crowned the cautious, uncharismatic German chancellor Angela Merkel at the top of them all – and for the fourth year in succession, too. She had quietly edged past fiery chief executives, brilliant politicians and beloved queens to proclaim to the world that power does not necessarily stem from the traditional sources of pomp, inheritance, commercial savvy, or manipulative public relations exercises but rather from the silent factor of staying focused and doing your homework, regardless of public acclaim or criticism.
Ms. Merkel’s distinction comes at a time when her nation goes to the polls on September 27, and according to the latest polls her party is likely to repeat its success at the last election when she narrowly lost a majority. Her personal popularity exceeds that of her party, the Christian Democrats, and she is expected to come romping home this time with a comfortable majority. Her dominance up there with the likes of fellow German the Pope and President Obama in terms of the list’s criteria of career accomplishments, economic clout and public profile, has come as no surprise to discerning observers, even if beset with seeming contradictions.
Indeed, if anything, Ms. Merkel is regarded as “famously uncharismatic” and a “kind of comic version of Obama”. Her uniqueness of political appeal led to toymaker Mattel commissioning an Angela Merkel Barbie doll, complete with black trouser suit, this year, in an ultimate spirit of self-parody. Pointedly, her husband Joachim Sauer adds to her “aloneness” of political office by refusing to appear with her at public functions. This daughter of an East German pastor has proved an antidote to the cult of a celebrity-driven culture in which public relations has been developed to a fine art, rendering the substance behind it to a shrivelling putty. She has consistently refused to play games of this kind and has steadfastly displayed courage in flowing against the current.
Ms. Merkel’s political instincts have been finely honed by her analytical skills developed during her training as a physicist. She has demonstrated them often enough at the meetings of world leaders at G8 summits as well as at the frequent EU meetings closer home. She stands out in any photograph of world leaders with her sartorial simplicity and elegance while not hesitating to stand by her brief at tough negotiating discussions in Brussels. Her gender has not prevented her from taking bold decisions in the current global recession even if it meant rejecting Obama’s pressure on Europe to spend its way out of recession. Nor did she budge when the Japanese whined that the Germans were not spending enough.
To her credit, Germany has emerged from recession early, in the teeth of those foreign doomsayers, assailing her for her extreme caution in dealing with the downturn. But Ms. Merkel is not intimidated. She has done well by the German economy, effecting state interventionism in just the right touch during the downturn. The response was tailored to Germany’s needs, not to those of other nations. The obvious culprits in the current financial mess hardly need to be identified. This is where one needs to appreciate the enduring virtues and stability of the German social market model that defines the relations between the state and the private sector, ushers low levels of personal debt, promotes export and manufacturing-led balance of payments, makes greater investments in sustainable technologies, and takes its international obligations seriously.
The German chancellor easily qualifies as an admirable female role model. Far from a sexist remark, this also underlines the fact that, unlike Michelle Obama, who also features in the Forbes list, Ms. Merkel has acquired her power status entirely on her own merits, not on the strength of the man she married. It is doubtful if Hillary Clinton would have made it to the presidential race but for the fact of her status acquired during her term at the White House as the president’s spouse. Ms. Merkel has a feminine charm of her own, one that is not intrusive. She may be dowdy but her dress sense makes a fashion statement of its own without having to associate itself with overplayed brand names of the industry. There’s a homely quality about her that disarms even her trenchant critics. Her gender comes across in less obvious ways and she can even appear “angelic” in a room full of “machos” as in most international gatherings. Most of all, she is the inverse “oomph” girl of international politics.
Editorials in European newspapers have reflected on the fact that Germany, as the most important country in Europe, is probably also “the most grown-up country in the world today”. A grown-up country with a greater sense of responsibility has an ability to reflect on itself. A rational, analytical, well-informed, pragmatic and self-assured Angela Merkel is a ‘power woman’ we can be proud of.
M N Hebbar is a Berlin based writer
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