Several days ago, a young boy asked Angela Merkel a profound question. The chancellor was on a trip to China and found herself in the central city of Chengdu, where she was visiting a social project that provides assistance to migrant worker families. The German leader had already asked a few questions herself, but it was the children's turn. The boy, in shorts and a T-shirt, wanted to know: "Ms. Chancellor, do you have a happy life?" One person in attendance said that Merkel smiled for a moment, paused for a second and then said, "Yes, I live a happy life."
On July 17, Merkel will turn 60. There will be a party and a speech, both taking place at the Berlin headquarters of her conservative Christian Democratic Union party. Merkel will take pains to ensure that the celebrations aren't too extravagant. She would like the event to seem inconsequential and prefers sparkling wine over Champagne. Regardless, it will still be a momentous day, one likely to draw attention to the fact that Merkel has joined Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl as the most influential chancellors in Germany's postwar history.
But the event will also be accompanied by a question just as profound as that asked by the boy in China: How much longer will she remain in office?
Neither Adenauer nor Kohl left the Chancellery voluntarily; one was forced out by his party, the other was voted out by the electorate. They left under a cloud of defeat, one which, at least for a time, overshadowed their achievements. With no term limits in Germany, it is, of course, how all other German chancellors have left office as well. But for Kohl and Adenauer, it is a problem they might well have avoided. The circumstances for either of the two to step down voluntarily would have been far more accommodating given that they had already been re-elected multiple times, they had viable successors and they had historical milestones closely affiliated with their names. And yet neither seemed able to take the step.
Angela Merkel would prefer to do things differently.
The chancellor, nicknamed "Mutti," or mom, remains largely uncontested both within her own party and in her coalition government. She is almost disturbingly popular among German voters (with a popularity rating of 77 percent) and is one of the clear leaders of Europe; she is on equal political footing with the presidents of Russia, the United States and China. Despite this, almost all of those closest to her professionally -- be it in her party or her cabinet -- are convinced that she will eventually step down. They are certain in their belief that she intends to become the first postwar German leader to decide on her own when she should leave office. "The idea really appeals to her," says one person on her government team, echoing the feelings of many.
Merkel, though, said during the election campaign that she intends to remain in office for the full term.
Expectations, in other words, are not consistent with Merkel's statements. But it is not difficult in Berlin to find people willing to talk about the paradox, be they members of Merkel's own Christian Democrats or of its junior coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats. But no one is willing to speak on the record.
The question as to whether the chancellor is considering stepping down voluntarily is one that Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, doesn't really care to hear. Officially, he replies with one word: "No." He then points to Merkel's own statements in the 2013 election campaign. But it's implausible that she's not at least thinking about it.
After a cross-country skiing injury at the beginning of the year, Merkel spent several weeks half working and half bedridden. One source close to Merkel says that the chancellor used some of the time thinking about her future and life after the Chancellery. Recent months, the source said, have been more intense, for reasons including the crisis in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine, leaving little time to focus on other things. But the questions about her future intentions remain.
A short time ago, a person close to the chancellor pulled her aside to tell her that many in Berlin were already discussing the possibility that she might step down voluntarily and that the gossip wasn't just limited to journalists. "And how did you answer them?" the chancellor asked. "That it's not true," the person said. "Rightly so," the chancellor answered.
That's not an unequivocal reply. "Rightly so," could mean "That's right, no resignation." Then again, it could also mean: Well done, good job blocking the stupid questions.
Stepping down voluntarily is quite possibly the toughest decision a top politician can make. Those who step down can quickly be accused of being weak and become vulnerable to questions about their health. They even run the risk of being viewed as failures. Besides, there are always objective reasons to continue in office. Even absent such reasons, most of Merkel's predecessors came to believe that they were truly irreplacable.
That's an idea alien to Merkel. But she also knows that, no matter how much she wants to be the architect of her own departure, the fuss surrounding it will be intense. And she too feels the call of duty.
Few top politicians in Germany have succeeded in stepping down in this way. One of the few is Roland Koch, the former governor of the state of Hesse who was once a Merkel rival for the leadership of the CDU. Good luck, strong nerves and the political impotency of his SPD opponent Andrea Ypsilanti ensured Koch re-election at the beginning of 2009, after which he succeeded in building a government in Hesse together with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party.
"At the end of 2009, we began considering the idea of a voluntary exit," Koch's long-time political confidant Dirk Metz said after the politician's resignation. "Koch had been saying for years -- even if no one believed him or wanted to hear it -- that he one day wanted to return to the business world. Being in his early fifties, he still had very good prospects for landing a job."
The decision also involved other considerations. "After 15 years in government, the fact that the next election wasn't going to be any easier for him was also a factor," he said. Those close to Koch say he also wanted to escape the fate faced by many other politicians -- that of being forced out under pressure from their own people.
At the time, Koch only discussed his future with his wife and Metz, thus managing to retain the element of surprise. In May 2010, the politician first announced his plans to step down to his party's stunned leadership before going public with the news a few days later. Afterwards, he said it had given him "perverse delight" that he had outwitted journalists.
Merkel's Husband Would Be Vital in Decision
Almost everyone close to Merkel agrees she would do things similarly. She would speak about it with one or two political confidants as well as with her husband Joachim Sauer, a professor of physical and theoretical chemistry at Berlin's Humboldt University. The influence he has on Merkel is often dramatically underestimated. This is partly due to the fact that Sauer makes very few public appearances, gives virtually no interviews and often travels abroad. Some friends of Merkel in Berlin say it will be his word and their plans together that will be the determining factors. They say he's the most important point of reference in her life.
But Roland Koch did more than just talk to his wife. He also took a sober look at himself and his prospects -- an ability absent in most politicians at the top. It became clear to him that his political career was unlikely to have a trajectory taking him higher than the office of governor of Hesse. For years, his name had been dropped as a potential CDU chancellor candidate. Although he had the ambition for the office, it had been clear for years that he no longer had the support or power to attain it. It was also becoming increasingly apparent that his time as governor was also limited and that he faced the prospect of getting voted out of office one or two elections down the road. Given that he had little chance of higher office and that he had already served for more than a decade as governor, he abandoned politics for a high-profile job at German engineering company Bilfinger, where he is currently CEO.
He was supported by Merkel at the time. She had reacted with mystification or even mockery to other resignations, but not to Koch's departure. "He simply asked the right questions," she said at the time. "And then he acted."
So when will she follow in his footsteps? That's the mother of all questions in Berlin right now. Even at a time when the capital is in the midst of unprecedented political calm, a political thriller is taking shape -- one that includes all the necessary ingredients: motives, means and a perfect opportunity.