Angela Merkel’s shrewd avoidance of stale leader syndrome

The writer, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s chief global strategist, is author of ‘The Ten Rules of Successful Nations’

Much has been written about how Angela Merkel is about to become the joint longest-serving German leader since Bismarck, but even that underplays her achievement. Come the new year she will have served a little over 16 consecutive years, longer than any leader of a major, advanced democracy since the 19th century, but for one, Tage Erlander of Sweden.

Merkel has defied the normal evolution of power, which is that leaders grow stale with years in office and leave on a low. Those who endure tend to grow arrogant or complacent over time, and get caught in scandal or are overtaken by events. Most lose momentum and support, usually well before their first decade is up.

Going back to 1900 in the 20 largest advanced democracies (by gross domestic product), only 31 leaders lasted 10 years or more, and the giants among them succumbed to stale leader syndrome with regularity. When Charles de Gaulle left the presidency in 1969, surveys showed most voters thought him too old, self-centred and authoritarian. François Mitterrand served longer than any French leader since Napoleon III but stepped down in 1995 “reviled by some, tolerated by others, loved by a few”. Jacques Chirac admitted at the end that he had lost touch with young voters and was pushed out by a protégé in his own party.

Franklin D Roosevelt died in office months before allied victory in Europe, widely adored as a war hero but loathed by critics as a dangerous socialist. Fears that his unprecedented four terms had raised the threat of an imperial presidency led quickly to term limits on his successors. Even so, of the 14 US presidents since FDR, 11 saw their approval ratings fall over the course of their administrations.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both secured multiple terms in Britain but left office with abysmal approval ratings, under 25 per cent. Thatcher over-reached, pushing a regressive poll tax that gave Tory rivals an excuse to force her out.

Germany was, before Merkel, an even clearer illustration of how leaders exhaust their welcome. Konrad Adenauer, who presided over the postwar “economic miracle”, was nudged out after 14 years by rivals emboldened by his government’s abuse of power in the “Spiegel affair”. Helmut Kohl, who oversaw German reunification, grew increasingly imperious, sought an unprecedented fifth term, and lost badly. In the end, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, every hero becomes a bore.

This tendency is more pronounced in developing nations, where checks on power are weaker. Suharto and Mahathir Mohamad were feted, respectively, as the fathers of development in Indonesia and Malaysia; both held power for decades but left amid gathering protests and charges of cronyism. China’s Deng Xiaoping, arguably the most important economic reformer of the 20th century, lost key titles after about 10 years in power following the Tiananmen Square protests.

Leaders who retired with reputations intact — like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore or Erlander, who served 23 years as Sweden’s prime minister after the second world war — were exceptions who prove the rule.

The past is often better remembered than it was lived. Many rulers gain in popularity only after they are dead, when their nations are looking for new or at least reimagined heroes. Merkel, still Germany’s most popular politician, breaks the mould at a difficult time.

Politics is increasingly polarised. The pandemic is undermining support for leaders in many major democracies; Merkel is one of only two with an approval rating over 50 per cent. The other, Mario Draghi of Italy, is just eight months into office. Had Merkel run for a fifth term, she likely would have won, succeeding where Kohl failed.

Her own party has not turned on her. Rather than vilify Merkel, the main opposition leader ran and won as her true heir, pragmatic and steady. No scandal trails her name. Merkel’s most controversial move, opening German doors to refugees in 2015, was also her boldest reform. She will leave Germany far richer, relative to its closest rivals in Britain and France, than she found it.

The consistent knock against Merkel is that she was a bore from the start, a timid reformer who left a long to-do list, from energy supply to digital competitiveness. But sins of policy omission should not overshadow the human tendencies she rose above: pride, greed, sloth. Power corrupts and time erodes but neither had much effect on Merkel. Go back more than a century and it’s rare to find any major leader who ruled so long but went out on such a high.

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