Analysis: Thinking backwards, Merkel hits her stride

Wed Feb 15, 2012 11:46am EST
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By Noah Barkin

BERLIN (Reuters) - Angela Merkel has come under fire in Europe for failing to provide leadership in the euro zone crisis, but at home she is now riding a tidal wave of popularity that would make her fellow leaders envious.

Merkel always thinks backwards from the next election, a close adviser once said, adjusting policy carefully -- sometimes years in advance -- to put herself in the strongest possible position for eventual victory.

For much of 2011 this approach seemed to backfire horribly. The leader of Europe's most powerful economy appeared out of her comfort zone as the euro zone debt crisis deepened and she was sharply criticized at home and abroad for failing to provide clear leadership.

Her abrupt decision last spring to ditch support for nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in Japan was dismissed by many Germans as a cynical ploy to win votes in a regional election her party ended up losing badly.

As the year came to an end, Merkel looked damaged. Her coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), was in meltdown and her hand-picked choice for the German presidency embroiled in scandal.

But less than two months into 2012, the chancellor suddenly has hit her stride and her political positioning of last year is looking more prescient by the day.

The closely-watched "Politbarometer" poll for public television station ZDF showed last week that 77 percent of Germans believe she is doing a good job.

The 57-year old pastor's daughter from East Germany is once again the most popular politician in Germany, well ahead of her possible challenger in the next federal vote, Social Democrat (SPD) Peer Steinbrueck.   Continued...

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference after talks with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (not pictured) at the Chancellery in Berlin February 14, 2012. REUTERS/Thomas Peter