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‘Mutti’ Merkel set to stay in charge

As elections loom, the German chancellor is on track to remain the preeminent politician in Europe.

Editor’s note: As Germans prepare for parliamentary elections later this month, senior correspondent Paul Ames made a 900-mile roadtrip across all 16 German states to take the measure of Europe’s most influential country. This is the first in his four-part series.

TEMPLIN, Germany — In Angela Merkel’s hometown, you would look in vain for any sign showing Europe’s powerful politician grew up here.

The house where her pastor father raised his family in a leafy complex that cares for the mentally handicapped on the edge of town is unmarked.

The school the young Merkel biked to bears no monument to commemorate its onetime star pupil.

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A plaque outside St. George’s Chapel, where 23-year-old Angela Kasner married her first husband Ulrich Merkel in 1973, says only that the 14th-century building resisted the fires and wars that have afflicted this lakeside city of 20,000 over the centuries.

“They don’t go in for hype around here,” says Sven Heussen, who runs a B&B across the canal from Merkel’s childhood home. “There are people who remember her as a school friend, but nobody makes a fuss, they treat it as just something normal.”

If Merkel has yet to make her mark on Templin, it certainly appears to have left its mark on her.

A centuries-old half-timbered house on the corner of Berliner Strasse and the old market square formerly housed the town’s savings bank. Its facade is decorated with maxims urging hard work, sound finances and frugality that seem to form a foundation for the austerity solutions Merkel has imposed in response to Europe’s financial crisis.

“Today’s saver will be tomorrow’s winner,” says one. “Whoever saves performs a great social task,” says another. “It’s not what you earn, but what you save that makes you independent.”

Barring a major upset, Merkel will be re-elected for a third term as chancellor when Germany goes to the polls on Sept. 22.

After eight years in office, her personal approval rating tops 60 percent.

Her popularity outstrips her party’s, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, which — together with its sister party in the southern state of Bavaria — is expected to win the elections. It’s currently polling more than 40 percent compared to around 25 percent for its main rival, the opposition Social Democratic Party, the SPD.

Merkel’s stated preference is for the CDU to remain in its current governing coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party, the FPD, but they are lagging in the polls behind the Greens and the Left Party.

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That means she may have to partner up with the Social Democrats in a so-called grand coalition as in her first term.

The only slim hope the Social Democrats have of unseating Merkel would be to team up with the Greens and the Left — something they’ve refused to countenance because of the Left’s associations with the former East German Communist regime.

Few experts believe the SPD has any chance of returning to power in any scenario.

Merkel “enjoys popularity even among supporters of the opposition parties, it’s quite overwhelming,” says Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst for the Berlin-based polling company Forsa. “No matter what coalition will be formed, right now it’s almost impossible that the Social Democrats will lead the next government.”

Merkel ascended to her current position as the dominant politician of her generation in Germany and Europe from a position of outsider.

She is the first female to lead a country where women are under-represented in politics and business compared to many of its European neighbors. She’s the first chancellor to come from the former East Germany, which remains economically disadvantaged more than 20 years since re-unification.

Her background as a small-town girl who waited tables to help pay her way while studying to become a physicist sets her apart from the insider world of big-shot lawyers, economists and career politicians at the heart of the political establishment.

Merkel kept her head down under communism. She learned Russian and traveled widely inside the old Soviet Bloc, and only entered politics in the late 1980s when the Communist regime crumbled with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Postwar Germans tend to like their leaders uncharismatic, and the values Merkel picked up in her rural youth — combined with the scientific background that encourages a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to problem-solving — helped mold a political persona that’s appealed to people across the country.

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“Her personal style is very modest and authentic, which is something that plays well inGermany,” says Tony Czuczka, a Bloomberg correspondent in Berlin who co-authored a biography of Merkel published this year.

“Germans in general don’t warm to politicians who put on an act, or a big show, and Merkel certainly does not do that,” he says. “When she talks about the values of the Swabian housewife, she is believable because about the most extravagant thing she does is go to the Bayreuth Wagner festival.”

Merkel lives with her second husband, chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, in a discreet Berlin apartment. She’s occasionally spotted in the local supermarket and has told reporters she makes breakfast for them both before work.

The couple likes to hike in the Alps during summer vacations and keeps a weekend house close to Templin amid the lakes and forest of the flat Prussian countryside north of Berlin.

Vilified by demonstrators in Athens as a ruthless destroyer of jobs who’s turned Europe into a German empire, Merkel is cherished back home not only for her self-effacing style but also her sometimes cheeky sense of humor. Many affectionately call her “mutti” — mom.

“She is very modest. She is not polarizing. She is a mediator and she is caring,” says Uwe Optenhoegel, director of the European Union office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is linked to the Social Democratic Party.

“This image of a caring chancellor puts her in a position where she comes across almost presidential,” Optenhoegel said in an interview from Brussels. “She has established a new style in German politics.”

Caring she may be, but “iron Angie” can be merciless in dealing with political rivals and resolute when defending her policies. Officials who work with her say she has an awe-inspiring grasp of the issues.

Few have emerged unscathed from a confrontation with her either in the corridors of power in Berlin, or at EU summits in Brussels.

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Voters see her as a safe pair of hands who is able to steer a way out of the worst of the euro zone debt crisis. She is widely credited in Germany with preventing a disastrous collapse of the euro while limiting the costs to German taxpayers.

Despite her having helped fund EU and International Monetary Fund loans totaling over $500 billion to bail out struggling euro zone economies over the past three years, most Germans see Merkel as having limited the damage.

Finance Ministry figures released in mid-August suggest Germany has actually made a profit of around $55 billion from the crisis as its safe-haven status pushes down the government’s borrowing costs.

“The German population attributes to Merkel the good management of the European crisis,” Optenhoegel says. “Germany has been very little affected by the crisis and people tend to think she is taking care of their wallets and not giving away money to the southern European states.”

While refusing to ease up on southern European austerity, despite the prolonged recessions in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy, Merkel has also resisted the demands hardliners back home. Led by Jens Weidmann, her former economic adviser who now heads the German central bank, they have opposed many of the measures Merkel backed to keep southern economies afloat.

The German leader believes in European integration as a bulwark for defending peace and freedom. In the darkest days of the euro crisis in late 2011, she evoked the specter of conflict on the continent in a speech to persuade German lawmakers to back a new rescue fund for troubled European countries.

“We have an historical obligation to defend and to protect the unification of Europe that our ancestors brought out of the war more than 50 years ago after centuries of hatred and bloodshed,” she told the Bundestag. “None of us can foresee the consequences if that weren’t to succeed.”

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There are persistent rumors that Merkel may one day head to Brussels to take up a top job at EU headquarters. For the moment however, it seems she will have another four years to manage Europe’s crisis from Berlin.

A new coalition with the Social Democrats would possibly bring some easing of austerity, but a major policy shift on the euro looks unlikely. The legacy of the Merkel era will depend on the success of those policies in ending the recession in the south and turning around Europe’s economic decline.

“If she manages to emerge as the savior of the euro, perhaps that is what she will be remembered for,” says Czuczka.

Maybe then they will put up a plaque in Templin.