Bowing out

Angela Merkel and the three phases of power

It seems natural that most people think hardest about making money, quite hard about keeping it, and hardly at all about giving it away. (That makes the exceptions, like Bill Gates, all the more remarkable.) The same applies to power. Whether in business or politics, people use their talents and guile to seize and defend it. Letting it go or passing it on are usually mere afterthoughts.

Angela Merkel long seemed to be special among world leaders in this sense. She appeared to be endowed with more wisdom and self-awareness, and perhaps burdened with less vanity, than her peers and predecessors, especially the males. Konrad Adenauer stayed in office for 14 years, until his own party grew tired of him. Helmut Kohl hung around for 16, long overstaying his welcome. Ms. Merkel, whose career took off under Kohl, even played her part in his eventual fall. Right around that time, in 1998, she told an interviewer that “I want to find the right moment to exit politics one day. I don’t want to be half-dead wreck then.”

That’s why it is increasingly intriguing that Ms. Merkel, now in her 13th year in office, is still chancellor. She could have stepped down in late 2016, before the most recent election. She says she thought about it. But then she ran again.

The conventional wisdom is that she felt compelled to stay at the helm out of worry about the shocks of Brexit, Donald Trump and the refugee crisis. Perhaps. But the years in power may have distorted her judgment. Even if she deemed no successor ready, she overestimated her own ability to stay in control.

As result, her victory in September’s election was Pyrrhic. She has been getting weaker ever since. Both she and her coalition are out of big ideas, preoccupied with internal bickering. All three parties are losing support in the polls, while citizens turn to the populist extremes or become non-voters.

And now even her own party, the CDU, is on the verge of rebelling. That is not the official but the implied signal sent by the CDU-CSU parliamentary caucus this week. Out of obscurity, a new face (Ralph Brinkhaus) stepped forward and was elected caucus leader, ousting a trusted old Merkel supporter (Volker Kauder) who had stewarded the caucus on her behalf throughout her time in office. In effect, the ballot was a mini-referendum on Merkel. And she lost.

Many other countries have term limits, but those are not necessary. What is required is that leaders cultivate the humility to know when their time has passed, and facilitate rather than impede the inevitable transition. Ms. Merkel still has a chance. But her time is beginning to run out. To secure her legacy, she should use her prodigious political talent to prepare a graceful exit, then bow out.

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