German Chancellor Angela Merkel never aimed to stay in power as long as her mentor, Helmut Kohl. But after her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came in first place in Sunday’s election, Merkel is set to be chancellor for a fourth time—placing her squarely in the same league as her conservative predecessor. Merkel will undoubtedly go down in the history books for being the first female chancellor, as well as the first from East Germany. But if this is presumably her last term in office, as there would likely be a sense of fatigue among her voters if she sought a fifth, she needs to think all the more carefully about her legacy, regardless of what kind of coalition government emerges in Berlin. 

Abroad, Merkel is known for her trademark calm and competence. At home, however, while she receives broad support and admiration for her global image, there is nevertheless a sense of unease about Germany’s future and her ability to keep the country on the right path. During the last 12 years in office, she shunned visionary leadership, opting instead to appease the center for short-term electoral gains by straying from conservative stances on issues such as energy and security. Doing so made her unpopular among some within her party and drove others further right, helping give rise to the anti-immigration, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD). That party entered the Bundestag for the first time, coming in third place with over 13 percent of the vote on Sunday. And so, in her fourth term, Merkel must fix her domestic image as a reactive dealmaker as she manages the structural changes she may have inadvertently set into motion. If she does so with foresight rather than through the prism of the here and now, she will be able to preserve her legacy at home.

There are three policies in particular that may have scored her short-term points with a majority of Germans but that ultimately displeased the conservative base of the CDU and will have ramifications for her country down the road: accelerating the timetable for phasing out nuclear energy, allowing an unprecedented number of asylum seekers through Germany’s borders, and halting military conscription. Although Merkel cannot reverse these policies during her next term in office, she can make adjustments, such as recasting the energy portfolio and increasing security capabilities. Investing in Germany’s current success and fine-tuning decisions will sustain Germany’s power and pull disenchanted conservative voters back into the fold, thereby weakening the AfD.

The will to curb carbon emissions and shed nuclear from her country’s energy portfolio is widespread among the mainstream parties as well as the German electorate. As a result, after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Merkel shortened a timetable, agreed upon in the year prior, that retained nuclear energy well into 2030 in order to ease the path toward a green economy. She instead designated 2022 as the deadline for phasing out nuclear energy, which echoed the position of the previous left-of-center government. Memories of Chernobyl and street protests against nuclear energy, against the backdrop of state elections scheduled to take place that year, pushed her to act, but her tactics didn’t necessarily pay off. The CDU lost ground to the Greens and the Social Democrats in a majority of the seven states that voted during this so-called super-election year. Fast-forward to today. As a result of her policy shift to the left, consumers are receiving higher electricity bills and utility companies are incurring losses to cover a rapid shift toward renewable energy. As the next government is formed in the coming weeks, it must map out a pragmatic Energiewende. Decreasing subsidies for renewables, urging the cushy automotive industry to make inroads with electric vehicles, and using brown coal while building out the grid are some measures that could keep the energy transition on track. In this way, Merkel’s nickname as “the climate chancellor” will be a point of admiration rather than bitterness when all is said and done.

Another source of resentment against Merkel, which could impact her legacy, is her immigration policy. Over the last year, Germany spent approximately 20 billion euros on refugees, which means Merkel must now integrate the one million migrants it accepted by incorporating them into German society through language classes and skills training. It must do so as soon as possible, both to maintain her country’s investment and to avoid further backlash, given the resonance that AfD’s criticisms of Merkel’s refugee policy has had.

Even before the election campaign swung into gear, however, Merkel recognized that Germans were troubled by reports about migrants entering Germany without identification and abusing the asylum system. She has initiated swifter expulsions of individuals who don’t comply with German laws and will continue to forge deals with countries such as Turkey to stem the flow of asylum seekers. Over the next four years, she will have to continue balancing the security concerns of citizens and the constitution’s humanitarian values in order to inhibit the AfD from gaining the upper hand. In doing so, although Merkel will not waver on her commitment to helping refugees, she may attempt to keep the level of migrants down by giving aid to Africa and maintaining a strict line when it comes to deporting immigrants who commit crimes.

Relatedly, with the terrorist attack on a Christmas market less than a year ago, and with a resurgent Russia looming in the east, Germany is now grappling with the fact that its military and police are weak and understaffed. In 2011, when Merkel decided to end military conscription, such security threats seemed abstract and distant. There was no hint that Donald Trump would one day become the U.S. president and threaten to dismantle NATO, that Russia would invade Ukraine, or that Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters would launch devastating attacks in Europe. Now that terrorism and political instability are realities at and within Germany’s borders, some within and outside her party rue her decision to disband compulsory military service. Since Merkel would be hard-pressed to overturn the decision, although there is a provision in the constitution to reinstate the draft, she can take steps to strengthen security and military readiness. She has already pledged to increase the police force by 15,000, is committed to reaching NATO’s goal of two percent GDP spending, and has bolstered the government’s cybersecurity resources. The new government can also consider a civil defense force to supplement an army with fewer soldiers.

Unlike the course corrections that she will need to make on energy, immigration, and security, Merkel has the wind in her sails when it comes to the German economy. Since she took office in 2005, the number of unemployed in Germany has been cut in half and the current unemployment rate is just shy of four percent. She skillfully navigated her country through the 2008 financial crisis by implementing furloughs for workers to prevent job cuts and a “cash for clunkers” program to boost auto sales. Europe’s largest economy continues to be an export champion, and investor confidence has risen in the last month in tandem with the euro. According to the Pew Research Center, 86 percent of Germans believe that their economy is doing well.

That said, there is still much Merkel should do to secure her economic legacy. Much of the credit for the economy’s health is due to Merkel’s former Social Democratic rival, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who instituted labor-market reforms with his Agenda 2010 plan. This did not endear him to his base, and some would argue that it led to his demise. Merkel has maintained and, to some degree, watered down Schröder’s policies and has thus kept the economy growing. But she has done little during her tenure to sustain such growth in the future. She can, however, change her record by making investments in education and infrastructure. On the campaign trail, she has been forthright about prioritizing the digital economy, in stark contrast to 2013 when she described the Internet as uncharted territory. She will also have to come clean on the necessity to bump up the retirement age to 70. It would be a bitter pill to swallow, since she rejected the proposal during a televised debate with her challenger, Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats, at the beginning of September, but Germans will need to work longer to buttress an aging society with a generous welfare system.

Merkel has consistently been ranked the most powerful woman in the world. She is admired for holding her own while sharing the stage with alpha males, and her brand has contributed to Germany’s overall favorable standing around the globe. Merkel’s next term must be focused on the repercussions her policies might have down the road. In this way, she can retain a legacy that is unblemished, both abroad and at home.

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  • SUDHA DAVID-WILP is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow and Deputy Director of the Berlin office at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
  • More By Sudha David-Wilp