On Monday morning, when Germany awoke to find that Angela Merkel had been re-elected as German chancellor, the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel printed the following commentary on its front page: “What do we need parties for when we have Merkel? That’s the attraction. Mommy is the best. We know ourselves. She won’t change much and doesn’t have to. Just because Merkel is so unspectacular, so hesitant, so apparently indecisive, she is very near to the way Germans actually are. The Germans elect their own image.”

The paragraph catches the essential mystery of Merkel as a politician. In Gerd Langguth’s 2007 biography of her, he writes that “there is something sphinx-like about her … Nobody is supposed to see behind the self-constructed protective shell.” She turns personal questions away with a self-deprecating joke: When a journalist recently asked her how she managed to look so fresh despite the grueling campaign, she replied, “By spending a fortune with the German cosmetics industry.” She also shuns the slightest hint of charismatic oratory. Her victory speech was characteristically low key. She refused to say anything about possible coalitions or future plans; her most specific directive to her supporters was simply to celebrate. It wasn’t clear on election night whether she preferred to keep her political plans for the next four years to herself or whether she simply had no political plans to share. It has always been that way with Merkel -- not that Germans seem to mind.

Merkel is widely recognized as one of the success stories of German reunification. Originally from the East German town of Templin, in Brandenburg, she chose to go to university in Leipzig, because, she notes, “I wanted to get away from the small town.” But her ambitions were not originally channeled toward politics. She majored in physics and, after earning a doctoral degree in physical chemistry, she spent 12 years in the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. Her lab companion described her as “a young scientist with no illusions … the only enthusiasm which affected her had to do with lonely bike tours in the Brandenburg countryside.”

On the night the Berlin Wall fell, November 9, 1989, Merkel went to West Berlin to have a look, but then returned home, because she had to get up early the next day. But she soon started to think about politics, and began attending meetings of the various new parties that had sprung up like mushrooms in the new East Germany. The Socialists sang too many songs and used the familiar Du form, which offended her. Eventually she chose Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening), an oppositional group, which existed only from October 1989 to August 1990. Merkel joined the DA late in 1989 and became its press spokesperson. A friend at the time described her as “inconspicuous and at the same time free from any temptations to be fashionable.” For someone so uncomfortable talking about herself, she turned out to be an excellent press officer -- precise and well informed in defending her political allies.

In December 1990, several months after German reunification, Merkel was elected as a Christian Democrat to become a member of the Bundestag for the Stralsund-Rügen-Vorpommern district, which she still represents. She rose rapidly -- by 1991, she had managed to become minister for women and youth, the youngest minister in German history, at 36, and the only East German woman in the cabinet. As always in her ascent to power, she was underestimated.

Merkel’s chancellorship began in 2005, atop a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, which could work because her economic conservatism is pragmatic rather than doctrinal. It rests on the so-called social-market economy, which limits liberal, free-enterprise capitalism and ensures that workers have representation in large companies. She can get along with quite a lot of the Social Democratic program.

Merkel’s popularity generally outshines that of the Christian Democratic Union. This is perhaps because she has a talent for bypassing the CDU’s hierarchy and talking directly to voters. She has brought American-style town-hall meetings, known as Regional Conferences, to Germany, at which she answers questions from ordinary citizens. A journalist described the conferences as “an office hour with the ‘Mommy’ of the nation.” With her enduring popularity at home, Merkel can shrug off unpopularity abroad.

But even since ascending to the top of Germany’s political hierarchy, Merkel has kept her intentions and desires to herself. She has a very small staff that never leaks. Her political philosophy, if she has one, rarely gets a mention in public. Franz Müntefering, one of Merkel’s ministers in the previous coalition government, called her Pilot Merkel: “You get on the plane. All the conditions are perfect; the machine is in excellent working order. The only problem is, you don’t know where you are going.” A former minister described her methods in equally vivid phrases: “First, keep all options open, but do it decisively. Second, hesitate vigorously.”

What will Angela Merkel do now? The victory of her Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union bloc, with 41.5 percent of the votes, nearly gave her an absolute majority of seats, but the failure of the center-right Free Democrats to collect the minimum five percent of the votes to be represented in the Bundestag means that Merkel will have to form a new coalition. Her most likely option, then, is to once again form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party, which came in second, with 25.7 percent.

Merkel would likely find this coalition of left and center perfectly comfortable, as she did between 2005 and 2009. A classic case of her ease in dealing with the Social Democrats was her agreement in 2009 to accept a 2,500-euro environmental premium, paid by the state to anybody who bought a new car and scrapped one that was nine or more years old.

Merkel has a tough series of choices ahead, and having a very large coalition majority would allow her to face the angry right wing of her own party. The hardest will be measures to settle the eurozone crisis and to stimulate growth in the economies of Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland. Almost as difficult will be the rebalancing of the German economy away from its export bias and toward more imports, especially from the ailing Mediterranean economies. So far, “Mommy” has always seemed to know best. But there is no guarantee that she will in the future, especially as the decisions before her get more complicated.

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  • JONATHAN STEINBERG is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania.
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