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Germany's Angela Merkel, 62, Will Seek A Fourth Term In 2017

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

She was declared the world's most powerful woman by Forbes magazine, and she has now declared last night that she will run next fall for a fourth term. We are talking about Angela Merkel. She's Germany's first female chancellor. And if she wins and serves her next term, she would tie her one-time mentor Helmut Kohl for that country's post-war record of most years in office. Let's turn now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin. Soraya, good morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So didn't the chancellor have a lot of reservations about running again? What happened here?

NELSON: Yeah, she said it took her a long time to come to a decision. Part of it is that she really isn't in favor of four-term chancellors. I mean, she just thinks that you can be in office too long. She's worrying about whether she still has something to bring to the job and whether she's still hungry for it.

And she also was pretty upset about this idea that's sort of been growing within Europe and even the United States that she's somehow going to take the baton from President Obama and become leader of the free world. She said it's - it's absurd and even grotesque to assume that one individual, even with a lot of experience, can actually change things in the world, you know, for the better. I mean, this is something that's sort of a group effort. So, yeah, she - she definitely had some reservations.

GREENE: OK, so she's sending a message of being humble, talked about maybe chancellors shouldn't serve this long, has now decided that she wants to do it. How are Germans reacting to this?

NELSON: Well, they seem to be very happy, which is a bit surprising considering she's had a lot of problems as of late. But a recent Forsa poll showed that 60 percent of the people polled wanted her to run.

GREENE: This is, like, a polling agency in Germany?

NELSON: Yes, correct.

GREENE: OK.

NELSON: And many of the analysts here in Germany are saying that the Trump victory in the United States - Donald Trump becoming president-elect - seems to have solved her recent image problem because, again, people are looking to her to fix everything in the Trump era, as it were.

GREENE: So, I mean, I know it's early - 10 months or so before an election - but any idea what message Merkel might have as she - as she takes another run at this?

NELSON: Well, one thing is she's trying to communicate that she's really eager to listen to people to the middle of the road to try and reduce this polarization that's been going on in Germany. So she says that that's something she's going to do. She's talking about fixing the refugee policy and better integrating asylum seekers who've been approved to stay here.

She says that whatever happens, her campaign is going to be a lot different this time. Although, by American standards, it's probably going to be rather boring because German elections tend to be low-key, and Merkel isn't really known for giving electrifying speeches. But the 62-year-old research-scientist-turned-politician has a reputation for being tough, smart and persistent in tackling problems, which should play in her favor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Her relentless drive is something she and her political party pointed out from the time she first successfully ran for chancellor in 2005, beating two-term incumbent Gerhard Schroder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Merkel, who was then 51, told Germans they should vote for her and her party to steer the country toward economic growth and more jobs, an appeal that sounded a bit forced as she read from a teleprompter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERKEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: "Germany can do this," she said, a trademark phrase that has come back to haunt her. Born in Hamburg to a mother who was a teacher and a father who was a Lutheran pastor, Merkel is the first German leader to have grown up under communism in the former East Germany.

Her historic rise to power began in the first post-unification election, when she was elected to the German parliament as a representative from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a district she won in six federal elections since then. As chancellor, Merkel gained recognition, if not always support, for her measured and dogged approach to international issues, like the euro debt crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERKEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: She became the face of the EU response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, always pushing for diplomacy but unafraid to slap sanctions on Moscow when it didn't back down. Merkel was also adamant about opening Germany's borders to hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from the Middle East, Africa and Asia and repeatedly told Germans, we can do this.

But many here feared the growing number of refugees would swarm the country and tear it apart economically and culturally, fears that right-wing and populist groups have exploited. Even in Merkel's electoral district this past February, protesters demanded she leave office. The anti-Merkel sentiment has helped the new nationalist party, Alternative for Germany, or AFD, to win seats in more than half of Germany's state legislatures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERKEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Last September, in a rare emotional moment, Merkel accepted responsibility for the losses after her party suffered defeats in the Berlin state election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERKEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: She said her refugee policy and trademark phrase, we can do it, have been so twisted around that she didn't even like to say it anymore. But she remains adamant that Germany has a moral and historic obligation to continue welcoming refugees.

GREENE: All right. Listening there to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson talk about Angela Merkel. And Soraya's still on the line with us. Soraya, I mean, Merkel has - has struggled to retain popularity at times, I mean, with the refugee question, lots of other things. Are there people who are going to challenge her?

NELSON: Well, it doesn't seem like there's anyone that jumps out from any of the established parties, although there have been a number of media reports talking about the head of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, that he might run against her. So far, he's said that this is news to him. He has no plans to run. Meanwhile, Merkel says that given, you know, Germany's polarization, she is expecting strong challenges from the right and left fringes of German society.

GREENE: OK, speaking about German politics with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin. Soraya, thanks.

NELSON: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.